Warning: This Drug May Kill You


A heartbroken mother comforts her heroin-addicted daughter.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Kathy Kelly, Stephany Gay, Britt Doyle, Preston Doyle, Britt Doyle Jr., Harry Doyle, Gail Cole, Brian Cole, David Cayce, Judy Cayce Enseki. Directed by Perri Peltz

 

We are told that the current opioid crisis is the worst drug addiction crisis in American history. Even as the debate for stricter gun control rages in the forefront of the American consciousness, the opioid crisis remains in the background despite the fact that it is responsible for more American deaths than are taken by guns.

This HBO documentary tries to take the epidemic out of the background and bring it into the light of day. It presents four families directly affected by the opioid epidemic in an attempt to put a human face on drug addiction. It begins by showing cell phone footage of addicts keeling over, barely conscious; of paramedics trying to revive them. In one heartbreaking moment, a mother is collapsed in the toy aisle of a grocery store while her toddler wails disconsolately beside her. Then, we cut to a Purdue Pharmaceutical advertisement from the 1990s in which Dr. Alan Spanos blithely advises doctors that opioids such as Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin were perfectly safe to prescribe for chronic pain patients and that the addictive properties of those drugs had been overstated.

Of course, we all know that’s hogwash and what’s more, we know that Purdue knew that it was a lie. They were fined millions of dollars for their misdirection but the damage was done; the company made billions of dollars as the rate of prescriptions went up 800 times what it had been before the ads and even today doctors continue to prescribe these very seriously addicting drugs for nearly every medical – and even dental – procedure. Many patients were never really informed as to just how dangerous these drugs could be.

Stephany Gay had issues with kidney stones as a teen and was given OxyContin and Vicodin for the pain. She began to get addicted to the feeling of well-being that the drugs gave her and she began to take them well above the recommended dosage. Her sister Ashley began experimenting with the pills but when it proved to be a more expensive habit than they could afford they switched to heroin. At first they were snorting it and both girls swore up and down to their mother Kathy Kelly that they would never use needles but eventually both did and at length Ashley died from an overdose. Stephany weeps in recounting those horrible events but now she has a daughter and is clean. Then we are informed that she relapsed six weeks after those interviews were filmed.

The Britt Doyle talks about his wife who was prescribed opioids following a C-section and turned from being a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing woman to a shell of her former self. Her young sons would find her dead after an overdose. Gail and Brian Cole visit their son’s grave; he was prescribed drugs following the removal of a cyst and became addicted and yes, died.

These are all white, middle class and upper class American families being affected; studies show that poorer class Americans aren’t prescribed opioids nearly as often mainly because the drugs are so expensive. Still in all these are stories of dealing with grief as well as dealing with drug abuse and they are emotionally powerful to be sure. But there is almost no context here and we are left to wonder why without any answers forthcoming do doctors continue to prescribe these drugs so commonly despite knowing the damage they are doing – more than 180,000 Americans have died between 2000 and 2016 due to the aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioid painkillers.

The sense is given that there are few resources available for prescription painkiller abusers, although Stephany entered a state-sponsored rehab program following her relapse, although she walked away from it four days after checking in. We may know anecdotally that heroin is a nearly impossible habit to break but we aren’t told why and that’s a question that Peltz doesn’t ask during the just under one hour documentary.

There really isn’t a lot of media coverage of the opioid epidemic and documentaries like this should be applauded for even being on the front lines of the issue but they also should be encouraged to dig deeper and this one simply doesn’t. Peltz seems to be content with displaying the grief of the families that survived the victims rather than explaining how the medical environment changed that allowed these tragedies to happen, nor does she talk about those who are beginning to take on Big Pharma to hold them accountable for the deaths that continue to climb. From watching this, you get the sense that this is a problem for which nothing is being done and that’s far from the case.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the families depicted are indeed heart-wrenching. The movie puts a human face on the opioid epidemic. The story has gotten little coverage except in generalizations; more documentaries like this are needed.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary feels incomplete with little context. It’s somewhat “Documentary 101” in form.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, depictions of drug overdoses, references to prescription drug abuse and other adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deaths from opioid overdose now exceed gun violence and car accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Make Money Selling Drugs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Thor: Ragnarok

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Wetlands (2017)


The secret to life is simply fishing.

(2017) Drama (Abramorama) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Reyna de Courcy, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Ehle, Louis Mustillo, Barry Markowitz, Sean Ringgold, Rob Morgan, Lauren LaVera, Tyler Elliot Burke, Pamela Dunlap, Melissa Goodwin, Quinn Fucci, Celeste O’Connor, Lou Morey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Natalie Paige Bentley, Dana Kreitz, Donna DeGregorio. Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

 

There comes a time in some lives where we have to start from scratch. Circumstances, bad decisions, bad luck; whatever the case may be, a new beginning becomes necessary once we hit rock bottom. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the son of an alcoholic religious fanatic and an absent father, has returned to the Jersey shore town outside of Atlantic City where he grew up. It’s in a bleak area of dilapidated homes, empty storefronts and swampy shore known as the Wetlands. He was once a narcotics detective in Philadelphia but a crippling heroin addiction and a heinous act sent him to rehab. He left behind Savannah (Graham), his embittered wife once a trust fund baby but now taking up with Surfer Girl (de Courcy), a surfboard maker who dreams of moving to Hawaii and starting her own business, but has taken to being a drug courier for Jimmy Coconuts (Mustillo) and in a not-too-smart move, skimming some of the drugs and selling them herself.

Babs doesn’t care about any of that. What he’s worried about is his daughter Amy (O’Connor) who despises him for leaving her with her mother and her lover, both of whom are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to Amy. For now, he’s on the police force of a small town, partnered with Paddy Sheehan (McDonald), a garrulous hard-drinking roustabout who is in debt up to his eyeballs to the local drug lord known as Lollipop (Markowitz) due to his taste in confections and who also happens to be the boss of Jimmy Coconuts. Paddy is married to Kate (Ehle), a newscaster reporting on the pending arrival of a late season hurricane which threatens to cause all sorts of havoc.

If the plot sounds a little bit scattershot, that’s only because it is. Fashionista and first-time director Della Valle seems torn between doing a noir-laced crime thriller and a drama about a broken man trying to start over; either one would have been an interesting movie on its own and if Della Valle had managed to fuse the two together he could have had an indie classic on his hands. Sadly however the two tales don’t mesh very well and we’re left with a choppy, uneven movie that doesn’t have any sort of flow to it. There is a murder in the movie that seems to be the crux of matters but it doesn’t occur until only about 15 minutes are left in the film which gives that last bit an almost rushed feel.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has had numerous supporting roles in a variety of films as well as memorable turns on TV’s Oz and Lost steps out into a much overdue lead role here and he does okay for himself, although he’s not given a very interesting character to work with. Sure, Babs has a lot of baggage and in the hands of a more capable writer could have been unforgettable but we are mainly left with a lot of clichés and backstory that is hinted at throughout the movie (told in black and white flashbacks) until near the end when the big reveal turns out to be not too difficult to predict.

The supporting cast isn’t too bad. McDonald takes the role and runs with it, giving a pretty slimy character a sheen of bonhomie. Ehle gets a role that gives her an opportunity to be sophisticated and sexy and she nails both of those aspects. Graham, who I’ve adored as an actress since her breakout role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me gets to do a role that might bring back memories of her performance in Boogie Nights although the movie isn’t up to the latter’s standard.

There are some really terrific images here, like a roller coaster post-hurricane standing in water but even the hurricane is somewhat anti-climactic. There are a lot of decent threads here but the overall whole is pretty disappointing; everything feels like it’s all build-up and no pay-off. In this town, that kind of thing can get you bumped off.

REASONS TO GO: There are some phenomenal images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed and the flow is uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, drug content, sexuality, some nudity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue Ruin
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Rebel in the Rye

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

Gimme Danger


Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it's 2016.

Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it’s 2016.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Magnolia/Amazon) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Danny Fields, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Ewan McGregor, Ed Sanders. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

The aphorism is that true artists are not appreciated in their own time. That is certainly true of the Stooges, a seminal Midwestern hard rock band that erupted from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 60s only to self-destruct in 1971, only to return a year later like a bad penny, then break up again for nearly 30 years in 1973 until a resurrection in 2003.

Their music received scathing reviews from critics who didn’t know what to make of them and the public took little interest; their record sales were tepid at best. Still, they became one of the founding influences of punk rock and their music influences nearly every heavy music artist of the 80s and afterwards.

Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is a clear fan of the band, having cast frontman Iggy Pop in two of his movies and it is equally clear that this is essentially a love letter to the band. Although incomprehensibly Jarmusch begins his film with the 1973 break-up, he then goes back to their roots and tells the story in a more linear fashion from there.

Mostly told through the music documentary tropes of talking heads interviews interspersed with performance footage and animated recreations of events, the movie captures the band’s management woes along with their descent into drug addiction – nearly the entire band was at one time on heroin which led to missed gigs, sloppy performances and poor decisions. In their glory, the band was raw and primal, a kind of primitive rock and roll which would have been equally at home with banging on rocks as it was with electric guitars.

Pop was the consummate front man, performing shirtless and dancing like an epileptic male exotic dancer whose DNA was equal parts Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. His bandmates – guitarists Ron Asheton and James Williamson, bassist Dave Alexander, saxophonist Steve Mackay and drummer Scott Asheton – tended to stare at the floor and move very little allowing their frenetic frontman to do the heavy lifting.

Pop and Williamson are the only surviving band members of the band’s glory years and each of them is compelling in their own way (Mackay and the Asheton brothers both lived into the 21st century and there are plenty of interview clips with them; Alexander passed away in 1975 and as a result we see him only In performance clips and publicity stills). Pop is surprisingly intellectual and a pretty entertaining raconteur; Williamson, who spent most of their post-breakup era as a software engineer for Sony, has a much more objective perspective of the band.

The solo career of Iggy Pop, which netted classic rockers like “Lust for Life,” isn’t mentioned here although the post-Stooge efforts of the other band members is gone into in some detail. There is also little outside perspective of the band itself; nearly all of the interviews are with the band members, Danny Fields and Kathy Asheton, sister to the Asheton brothers. Only bassist Mike Watt, who performed with a 21st iteration of the band, is interviewed.

There is also surprisingly little of their music used on the soundtrack. We do get to hear those magnificent opening chords to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” but we hear it several times during the film. I get that there is precious little performance footage from the band’s 1970s era but one gets a sense that what we’re seeing here is pretty much readily available elsewhere, or at least that’s what I get from Internet comments on the documentary by fans of the group.

I was a bit surprised at how ordinary the documentary was. Jarmusch has a reputation for turning convention on its ear, but this is as conventional a music documentary as you’re likely to find. Maybe Jarmusch is too close to the subject; they are surely worthy of a documentary but this is one of those occasions where the subject of a documentary isn’t done justice by the documentary itself. Still, the Stooges are so compelling a story, Pop so entertaining a storyteller that I can freely recommend this to not only fans of the group but students of rock music history in general.

REASONS TO GO: The Stooges make for compelling subjects and Iggy is an interesting storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is disturbingly light on actual music.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of profanity and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Danny Fields had been sent by Elektra Records to scout the MC5 for which the Stooges were opening; impressed by both Michigan groups, he signed the MC5 for $20K and the Stooges for $5K.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We are Twisted Fucking Sister
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Doctor Strange