“ Beautiful Boy”

A family split apart by drugs is not fun to watch, but this is a film that should be seen for its empathetic value.. In 2017, over 10,000 lives were lost in the United States due to crystal meth use. This film does not show most of the grungy side effects, but it does provide facts on brain neural function decline while skipping the rotting teeth. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen has just the right objectivity to frame the true story of the dynamics of a family in pain without shocking us with ravaged bodies.

Based on the memoirs of San Francisco journalist David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” begins with the father seeking help in understanding what this drug is doing to his son. Steve Carell tries to be stoic as he asks a drug counselor ( Tim Hutton) what he can do to help his son, Nic. ( Timothee Chalamet). Through a series of flashbacks, the film gives us a history of fatherly love of the unconditional sort.

Sweet episodes of Carell singing John Lennon’s “ Beautiful Boy” to his own son at age four mesh into memories of father /son surfing, biking, and sharing experiences. They talk. They hug.

Events have not been perfect. There has been divorce and two siblings,ten years younger, vie for parental attention. Stepmother Karen, played beautifully by Amy Ryan, supports her husband and loves her stepson. Tension arises while protecting their younger children. Her artist easels and canvases eventually are crammed into Nic’s room which make him feel pushed out. When a druggy girlfriend and Nic break into the house, Karen chases them but gives up in a puddle of fraught sobs.

Chalamet’s interplay with his young siblings is some of the most affecting. When the six-year-old asks if Nic is on drugs again, we wince. The family turning lights on and off has symbolic meaning. Like all drug addictions, this is a roller-coaster ride of hospital calls, disappearances,in-house treatment centers, and relapses and recoveries. Nic sees the hopelessness in the process. When David mimicks his counselor’s bromide that “ relapse is part of the process of recovery”, Nic chides in with “ Dad, that’s like saying crashing is part of piloting!”

The editing of the first part of “Beautiful Boy” is perfectly nuanced, but then it is as if the editing team went on vacation. Signs of depression, isolation, heavy metal music, experimentation, and fear and anxiety of high expectations are touched upon. Hedonic excuses of “I felt better than I ever have” sink into more lies and hiding. “Taking the edge off stupid reality” has its draw backs in rainy searches, group sessions, internet tutorials on injecting safely, and dark poetry, and wild handwriting.

When Carell begins lunching with users to learn more of what his son is experiencing, we know he is going to snort to feel his son’s euphoria. Monsters are back two-fold. The young children, Daisy and Jasper, are the only ones who don’t seem to know of the single digit success rate for meth addicts. Nic’s biological mother, Vicky( Maura Tierney) gives her best, as does Nic’s AA sponsor, Spenser.

I have warned my three friends who have been through this ordeal not to see this film alone. Seeing a family from the rear view mirror is just too much. The pee specimens, the morgue visits, the vomit are dirges enough. When Nic says “ I am addicted to craziness. You are embarrassed. Mom should have gotten custody. You try to control everything”, the audience sighs. And when Carell says, “ I trust you, but we need proof” as he hands Chalamet the pee jar, we acutely understand Nic’s wry comment: “ That’s about as contradictory as it gets.” The film’s ending leaves us feeling the same way.

An endnote:
Film viewers, you will miss the tone of this memoir if you leave before the poem by Charles Bukowski, “ Let It Enfold” is recited by Nic. If you jump up and walk out, you have lost.

“Maria by Callas”

One-hundred and so minutes of letting Maria Callas tell her story through personal letters, archival film-strips, interviews, and arias lets us understand more about the Greek-American operatic sensation. Maria tells us that she was pushed into her career by her mother and later by her husband, who both rejoiced in the glow of her fame. She sacrificed having a family for her career. Maria talks of destiny, undramatically.

Callas was born in New York in 1923. Her father changed his name from Kalogeropoulos to Kalo. She furthered the change to Callas, but she grew up as Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos in Brooklyn. The family was caught in Greece during the war.

Maria Callas is direct, forthright, and comfortable with herself. Her strength is balanced by her vulnerability. Her childhood and early student days are not detailed. She tells us that she lied about her age to get into the conservatory in Athens. She was thirteen, not the required seventeen. Her mother was ambitious and strict. Maria was only allowed five minutes in front of the mirror. Her teacher Madame Elvira de Hidalgo defines her a a hard worker with expressive eyes. Hidalgo used one method “bel canto”. The voice was kept light, flexible, and penetrating. Maria’s Greek debut was in 1941. Her American in 1945. We hear nothing about the use of tapeworms to control her weight. But much is revealed about her friendship and nine-year love affair with Aristotle Onassis.

Callas calls Onassis “Aristo”. Her interview with David Frost shows her charming, sincere, and spontaneous. She calls Onassis the “finest of friends.” Maria describes him as ” full of life” and then ” the source of life”. She left her husband for Aristo, who made her feel feminine and liberated. She describes Onassis as boyish, generous, and never petty. The paparazzi hounded them.

After he caddishly abandoned her for a marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, Maria was devastated. She quit the stage for four years. Unrequited love was more than the stuff of opera. Her letters to Aristo speak of him being “her very breath”. When he did return to her admitting that his marriage to Jackie was a mistake she replied with a truthful twinkle in her eye that it was her mistake. She reflects that she put a man on a pedestal. Her affair a failure: her friendship a success. She tells Frost that one must have no resentment. One must forgive.

Callas loved France. Paris in 1963 was respectful of her fame. “People let you be. They leave you alone~don’t smother you.” Callas spoke beautiful French and beautifully of the French. In 1975, Callas saw Aristotle for the last time in his hospital room in Paris.

Director Tom Volf places music in the forefront. Chronologically, we see aged video of performances in Florence 1952, Milan 1954 & 1957 ,New York and Chicago 1956. Her performance of Bellini’s ” Norma” zeroes in on her upset fans. Callas’ bronchitis cut the second act even with Bellini in-house.

Rome in 1958 has her dubbed a tempestuous tigress. We see her with flowers in her arms in Lisbon, a prima donna of pure electricity.

Callas’ ardent fans see her mostly in winter colors of white, black, and tomato red. Poodles are her pets of choice, and she surrounds herself with all sizes. Her eyes flash as she tells us that she likes to cook, and collect recipes. Operatic star Joyce DiDonato reads Callas’s words when her own voiceovers were not found.

Callas’ forty-year career, from her spat with Rudolph Bing and the MET to powerful and riveting performances, stand against her Tosca in longing, fire, and grace. Callas died in Paris of a heart attack in 1977. She was just 53. Her “scandals” seem vindicated in this documentary. In her own words:” I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not a devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged.”

“Boy Erased”

What a wonderful boy these Baptist fundamentalists raised was my first thought after viewing Joe Edgerton’s film, “Boy Erased”. Lucas Hedges plays a much different teen than he did in “Manchester By The Sea” ( reviewed here Dec.3rd, 2016 ). His Patrick was abrasive, spoiled, self-obsessed, but here Hedges, as Jared Eamons, is earnest, honest, and compassionate. Hedges can bring teen angst, suffering, and exploration to the screen so that this true-life story makes us what to reach in and rescue Jared from these same loving parents, who put him through expensive “conversion therapy” to change his sexual orientation. Jared survives the harrowing ordeal and tells us in flashback style that “sometimes I wish none of this happened, but I thank God that it did.”

Joel Edgerton’s screenplay lets Jared’s preacher father have his say in the pulpit and arround a table of faith-filled elders. Russell Crowe is phenomenal as Marshall Eamons, a car dealership owner, salesman, and Southern preacher. You do not recognize him fifty pounds heavier and intent on steering his family toward his concept of the Lord.
Continue reading “Boy Erased”

“ A Private War ”

The philosopher Albert Camus once wrote that “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph, and the signs of horror are still in the air.” 

The bio-pic “A Private War” introduces most of us to Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent who wrote for London’s “The Sunday Times” and ultimately lost her life in Syria. There is evidence that she was targeted by the Assad regime, but “ A Private War” is more of a character study then a dramatic thriller, though it has harrowingly frightening  war scenes.

Rosamund Pike carries the film. She is always on the screen. Her husky voice letting us know she believes in her mission to bear witness to the suffering of civilians in war ravaged places, especially the women and the children. Yale educated, Colvin covered conflicts all over the world for twenty-seven years in places as diverse as Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, and  Sri Lanka.  She lost her left eye while reporting on the battlefield in East Timor. Feisty, yet suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism, Colvin is surrounded by friends, ex-husbands, and loyal colleagues. Nikki-Anika Bird is a natural at playing the no-nonsence, Rita, while Jaime Dornan is more leaden in his admiration of Marie. Stanley Tucci captures the more wanton edges of fame and opportunity. 

Director Matthew Heineman makes sure that “suffering is part of the record”, and the film is exhausting in both the personal and in the national tolls. At fifty-six, Colvin’s flak-jacket is still in use. She is disfigured, British Correspondent of the Year, and suffering from nightmares. One of my favorite scenes is when she lies to a border guard that she is a nurse. She uses her health gym card and points to the word “health” to parlay her way closer to the action. More tender scenes like when Marie comments that during war “ the fragility of the human body never leaves you,” are well-placed.

The film written by Arash Amel, sticks to its premise that journalists are truth-seekers who care, and through their writing and with photo-journalists as partners, they work to make us care. Colvin was driven in her belief that truth-telling journalists could save lives. Grim and provocative, she made her mark. She was addicted to war zones. A favorite line is “ Don’t be English-be honest. Get me back in the field.”

Amel’s flashback use is jumpy, but I can’t see chronology working as well either. Homs, Syria 2012 does not flow easily into London, 2001. Along the way, we see her interviews with Muammar Gaddafi after U.S. planes bomb Tripoli. We see Colvin’s toughness and her charm. The film’s title is taken from a Vanity Fair article written by Marie Brenner, “MC’s Private War”. It is a good one, and I am glad it was used. 

A new book by Linsey Hilsum, “In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspobdent Marie Colvin” summons up other similar insights. I will add this biography to my collection of female journalists living abroad and reporting their stores and their truths. Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” ( 2017) and Deborah Campbell’s “ A Disappearance In Damascus” ( 2016) are well-worth reading in the spirit of Marie Colvin. And, who knows, maybe their films will follow.


“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Let me begin with “I loved this film, and I can’t think of a thing that would improve it.” From the acting to the storyline to the music to the pacing and the cinematography ~ all facets of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” worked to warm the heart to these flawed characters. And characters they are. Melissa McCarthy is Oscar-worthy as real-life author Lee Israel. And Richard Grant is brilliant and equally award-worthy as Jack Hock ( his name, he reminds us  rhymes with “cock” ), Lee’s seemingly insouciant partner in crime.

Marielle Heller directs and Amy Nauiokas is the producer. Women power to be sure! Cinematographer Brandon Trust gives us a 1990’s upper West New-York neighborhood before gentrification. Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty round out the superb contributors to a film about a dissatisfied New York writer, who though she wrote her way to the New York Times Best Seller’s list, could not secure an advance to complete a Fanny Brice bio. she wished to write. Retaining her fame was hard, and her NYT ‘s best seller is seen reduced by seventy-five percent and languishing on a bookseller’s sale table.

Now, almost penniless, Lee drinks and grumbles. Her surly “fuck-offs” alienate her from her agent, played with just the right caring frustration by Jane Curtin. 

Since her rise with her biography of Dorothy Kilgallen, Lee is now reduced to loving a cat that doesn’t reciprocate and scamming a coat checker to stay warm. Even her long-time  vet is asking for cash up front. Her down and almost out status, gives us a chance to meet the super of her apartment building and see Lee’s kinder side. McCarthy is wonderful at capturing myriad emotions with just the look of an eye or a lip pulled more tightly.

The screenplay allows its viewers to read between the lines. Lee is observant, but judgmental. She is lonely, but stand-offish. She is witty, but a “mean girl”. She is unlikeable, but we understand and forgive her. The film’s title is  also the title of Lee’s own memoir which she borrowed from an invented quip she gave Dorothy Parker after supposed drunken behavior. You see, Lee has been forging addendum to literary figures’ prized memorabilia. We learn , along with Lee, how profitable selling to collectors can be, especially if the artifacts are embellished. 

One such Lee Israel add-on actually made it into Noel Coward’s biography. Julie Andrews was fraudently said to be “ quite attractive since she dealt with a monstrous English overbite.” 

Enter Richard Grant, Dolly Wells, Anna Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Ben Falcone ( McCarthy’s actual husband ) to add to one of the best supporting casts seen in film this year. No character study is complete without the insight of friends and foes. While Lee is peddling her spiced-up forgeries, one lonely bookstore owner shows an intellectual and a romantic interest in Lee. Lee apologizes, but declines: “ I’m not good at social clues.”

Later, we meet Lee’s former girlfriend, Elaine, ( Anna Smith ). Elaine gives us her backstory of  being exhausted talking Lee off the ledge. She talks like someone who has had hours of therapy herself. Elaine tells Lee that she tried, but Lee was too self- involved, too miserable, and too trust adverse. Lee’s lawyer ( Spinella) is equally honest and forthright, but his kindly touch is abraded in familiar fashion. It is only Jack whose friendship lasts, and he  agrees to let Lee write about their literary crimes. “ Make me with perfect skin, and don’t make me sound stupid,” he jokes. 

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is well-paced and uses music to wonderful effect. “ Oh, What A Hit We Made!”  both speaks for Lee and Richard, and for the film itself. When Israel states that “ she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”, moviegoers will agree with her caustic wit and remember the pain that called it forth. Kudos all.

“ The Girl In The Spider Web”

The “me,too” movement has a good push with “The Girl In The Spider Web”. Despite its over-powering music, “ The Girl In The Spider Web” shows especially what child abuse can do to the psyche. Revenge takes over in this film with techno skills celebrated and with a chessboard metaphor.

If you have not read the Stieg Larrson trilogy, the characters are a tad blurry. Lisbeth Salander is played by Claire Foy, not Rooney Mara, nor Noori Rapace before her. Like a female James Bond, the Lisbeth Salanders vie for our favorite. Claire Foy shows more emotion, yet Rooney Mara remains my favorite. I liked the impenetrable facade.

Here, in the fourth Salander movie, Foy gives us Lisbeth’s backstory, and it is not pretty. Incest and betrayal forge her childhood into a morphed techno-dragon, who is out to seek revenge on deplorable men: the kind who beat and ravage.

The first sequence has our protagonist rescuing a beaten wife and stringing her apologizing husband upside down in their posh condo. Lisbeth uses her hacking abilities to transfer their fortune to his wife and child. We hear Salander’s harsh, “ Take your child and go!” She complies. When the upside-down spouse demands to know who Lisbeth is, she cooly replies, “You should ask yourself that question.”

While Lisbeth is fighting wrongs, her sister Camilla,(Sylvia Hoeks) has woven a web to make Lisbeth suffer further for leaving her with their incestful father. An even colder fish than Lisbeth, Camilla, always dressed in red couture, seeks to suffocate her sibling. The heavy, black neoprene, womb-like contrivance with its attached placenta that is used to do this is symbolically cool. Camilla cuts a slit over her sister’s mouth and then glues it shut. She is a mess of push and pull, a psychopath for certain. Game board moves keep us guessing.

The writing and wayward plot could use some tightening. The avenging angel trope is mixed with Ducati flair and techy brilliance. When a client asks for the impossible to vaporize his project, Firefall, his young son is kidnapped. The god-like power for a single user gets National Security Agencies honing in for the technologically rich abomination. The chase is on.

Fire and ice imagery and dark sets keep the cinematography interesting. The most explosive scene being when Lisbeth’s loft is firebombed, and she saves herself by diving into her milky bath water. Bathtub safety wins again.

While all of this is a tad James Bond silly, there is a psychological thread that excentuates how “the past can be a black hole”. Director Niels Arden Oplev stays true to “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo”, “ The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”, and “ The Girl Who played With Fire”, by adding more bi-sexuality and cult fun. Pink suitcases full of dildos mesh with cement bunkers, safe room elevators, and mutilated faces cut up by spider-tat-scalpel wielders. “The itsey bitsy spider” is hummed alongside gas masks and electric prods.

Writers Frede Alvarez, Jay Badu, and Steven Knight could have written a better script, but they kept Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist alive for another sequel.

“Free Solo”

A documentary about an extreme sport will have you shaking your head and gasping in your next breath. The idiocy of some human goals and the splendor of nature are the reasons. National Geographic funded, “Free Solo” introduces most to Alex Honnold,a thirty-three-year-old professional rock climber. We watch him arduously prepare for a rope-less climb up the 3000 foot granite wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Many call Yosemite National Park one of the most beautiful valleys on Earth, and film directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin do not want to see free soloist Honnold there. They hope to see him on top looking down on that valley from the most impressive wall on Earth, El Cap. This tension between wishing Honnold to succeed and fearing that they may distract him with a camera drone or a sound enhances the fear factor.

One of the most surprising part of the film is the preparation details interwoven into the narrative. The route is charted, memorized by touch, journaled with body positions and practiced moves. Physically, yoga stretches and drill and pull excercises prepare the body. Emotionally, dealing with fear and expanding comfort zones, and seeking perfection in being physically fit provide the armor needed. The preparation is arduous, time sapping, and methodical. Incrememental progress is the mantra.

While Alex is honed in to extreme preparation, his girlfriend, Cassandra McCandless, is all about communication. They met at a book signing, and their real life relationship is a boost to the narrative. We understand Alex more through her loving eyes. She is a life and transition coach, who knows how to ask questions and respect and clear emotional boundaries. Her boyfriend’s ropeless ascent is given her perspective, too. 3200 feet is a long way, and when it is a sheer granite rise the risk is enormous. The movie’s visuals are heart-stopping, even for the climbing camera men. There is no margin for err.

The writers provide the lists of fellow climbers, thirty to forty, who have died. They show Alex giving talks to high schoolers about making one’s hobby into a successful career. When one student asks how much money Honnold makes, Alex doesn’t wince: “ I make an income compared to a moderately successful dentist.” He tells the questioner that one-third of his income goes to a non-profit. He is forthright and honest.

We see the risk-adverse Alex climbing in Morocco and cooking vegetarian in an old van. If solo climbing trains your mind, it also benefits from a amygdala wired for high stimulation. We see Alex undergo brain imaging(MRI) to prove this point. The amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear.
Alex needs a higher stimulation to activate his amygdala. Seeing Alex do a karate kick while hanging by his fingers is pretty crazy. With only his chalk bag, Alex shows us that repetition and practice have their place in a successful outcome, too. The crew finds Alex’s attempts equally scary. The film’s sound track extenuates the suspense, even though we know the outcome. The first person to free solo El Capitan will make you doubt gravity. There were a lot of fathers and mothers with their teenagers in the theatre. I wonder what they talked about after this documentary.