ADDicted (2017)


The joys of home study can’t be understated.

(2017) Drama (Vision) Luke Guldan, Lauren Sweetser, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Bellows, Thom Christopher, Ezra Knight, Taylor Gildersleeve, Tyrone Brown, Morgan Roberts Jarrett Worley, Aaron Bickes, J. Tucker Smith, Danielle Marcucci, Mark Tallman, Ben Kaplan, Sarah Kaplan, Sal Belfonte, Delia Cai, Joe Greene, Ryan J. Murray, Sue Ellersieck, Jon Drtina, Katherine Ashcraft. Directed by Dan Jenski

 

College is a pressure cooker, even more so now than it was in my day. Every professor seems to be of the mindset that theirs is the only class you’re taking. Most students have to take on a job in order to make ends meet while they’re in school in addition to their class loads and if they intend to go further in their education with an advanced degree, the pressure is really on to keep the grades high in order to be in the mix for those coveted grad school slots.

\Drew Dawson (Guldan) has more pressure on him than most. Although he comes from a background of wealth and privilege, he is a star football player who loves playing the game. His overbearing and demanding mother Kate (Quinlan) has his future all planned out for him; law school, a job at his grandfather’s prestigious St. Louis law firm and then maybe politics. She herself is running for a seat in the House of Representatives and needs Drew to be at his very best.

But all this is much more difficult because Drew has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a hard time focusing and keeping his grades up, so he has been taking Adderall for a decade, not long after his father passed away in a car accident. On top of that, Drew has broken up with Ashley Ross (Sweetser) after he caught her cheating with an ex. A sorority queen and journalism major, Ashley is a favorite of Kate’s who knows she will write complimentary material for the school paper and Kate needs all the good press she can get. For that reason, Drew hasn’t told his mother about the breakup.

Things being what they are, Drew is starting to crumble a little bit. A paper he has turned in to Professor Mueller (Bellows) has been flagged for plagiarism; actually, Drew didn’t mean to plagiarize the material he’d just failed to attribute the quotes he was using to the proper sources. If Drew gets turned in for plagiarism, he could lose his scholarship and certainly his place on the team. After some pleading, Drew is given a second chance.

Drew’s doctor (Smith) ups the dosage of the Adderall and at first that seems to settle Drew down but Drew is also providing pills to Ashley and his good friend “Radar” Robson (Brown) who uses the pills to help him focus on the field. But the straw tower is collapsing and Drew is floundering; his mother isn’t very sympathetic and soon an innocent study session leads to a decision that could have devastating consequences.

In all honesty I didn’t know Adderall addiction on campus was a thing but apparently it is. Set at the fictional Missouri A&M University, the movie does a pretty realistic job of capturing the pressures of college life although most college students don’t have the resources that Drew has; as I said earlier, most have to maintain some sort of job in order to pay for their living expenses while Drew doesn’t have that problem. Still, even he is under the gun of high expectations.

Guldan is a good looking young man but throughout the film his delivery is low-key; I’m not sure if this is to portray the effects of the drug on Drew or if it’s his natural delivery. It makes his performance a little bit stiff and wooden though. Quinlan is given a character who isn’t very realistic and who isn’t a very good mother and she does her best with it but at times I thought her character should have been twirling a metaphorical moustache a la Snidley Whiplash. Bellows, a solid character actor, fares best with the hip and cool professor who really Cares About His Kids. He comes off as very down to earth and the kind of professor who made learning fun when I was in school back in the stone age when we didn’t bring laptops to class. We – horrors – hand wrote our notes; oh, the humanity!

Some of the plot elements are a bit over the top in a soap opera sense and that doesn’t do the movie any favors. The whole subplot about Kate’s Congressional campaign could have been jettisoned without adversely affecting the movie; in fact, I would have loved to have seen more material on the effects of the drug on Drew and the people around him and gain a sense of how widespread the problem really is. While the movie has some missteps, the subject matter and main focus are to be congratulated and it is worth checking out for the scenes that do seem to be more on mission and less concerned with unrealistic plot twists.

REASONS TO GO: The issue of Adderall abuse on college campuses is brought into focus. Bellows gives a down to earth performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drug abuse, adult themes, profanity, some sexual references and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the college campus scenes were filmed at the University of Missouri.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Basketball Diaries
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncle Gloria: A Helluva Ride

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Beaver


 

The Beaver

A lot of beaver jokes are suggesting themselves but I’ll take the high road (for once).

(2011) Drama (Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Jeff Corbett, Baylen Thomas, Kelly Coffield Park, Michael Rivera, Kris Arnold, Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, Terry Gross. Directed by Jodie Foster

 

Depression is one of those insidious things that can trap you in a room and cut off all the exits. For some of us, depression is something we escape through drugs, alcohol or sex. For others, depression is something we learn to live with and accept as being a part of ourselves, often along with the medication we take to deal with it. Then there’s Walter Black.

Walter (Gibson) is the president of a toy manufacturing firm whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. This has led to serious depression on Walter’s part, robbing him of his inertia (as many depression patients do, he sleeps an awful lot) and his ability to communicate with his family. His teenage son Porter (Yelchin), already at odds with his parents as teens will be, finds new reasons to loathe his dad. His wife Meredith (Foster) tries to be supportive but even she has reached her limits. She throws his ass out, sadly, reluctantly but inevitably for the good of her children – there is another son much younger, Henry (Stewart) who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.

Hitting rock bottom, Walter tries to kill himself but his attempts fail miserably. He finds a disreputable-looking beaver puppet and to his surprise finds himself able to speak through the puppet and say the things he’s wanted to say – and more to the point, discovering an avenue to rejoin his life.

It works wonders. Walter is able to reverse the financial decline of his company and reconnect with his family – first with Henry and then with Meredith. Porter still spews venom at his dad and is going through his own turmoil; he writes term papers and speeches for other classmates in their own voice. He’s in the middle of trying to connect with Norah (Lawrence), a cheerleader and class valedictorian who is going through her own life crisis.

But all is not necessarily golden. Walter is becoming consumed with the puppet, to the point that he uses it in his sexual reconciliation with Meredith which is just a little bit more than creepy. One soon has to wonder who’s in charge – Walter or the puppet and if it’s the puppet, where is Walter?

Foster, one of the most gifted actresses and directors of her generation, returns to the director’s chair for the first time in 16 years. She’s a marvelous storyteller – go see Home for the Holidays or Little Man Tate if you don’t believe me – and tends to prefer scripts with unconventional stories to tell, as this one surely is.

As a look at the effect of depression on a family, I’m not sure how to take it. As someone who battles depression himself, I can understand Walter’s behavior to a certain extent, although I kind of wonder what most psychologists would have to say about his self-treatment. I’m not sure talking in a funny cockney voice through a glorified sock puppet is the way to wellness.

Of course, one can’t discuss the film without at least mentioning the elephant in the room. Gibson’s threatening phone calls to his girlfriend became public. There are many who had yet not forgiven him for his anti-Semitic remarks five years earlier as well. His battles with alcohol are public record, and there are those who feel he is a miserable excuse for a human being. Personally, I’m not one of them; I think he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life; there are many people who are close to the man who say he’s neither violent nor racist but their voices tend to be drowned out in all the self-righteousness. I don’t know him personally; he may well think Jews are responsible for all the wars ever started. He may have just said that in a drunken depression. Either way, it’s not germane to the matter at hand.

Say what you like about him as a person, he is a really good actor. He captures the gaze of a man caught in the grip of depression without overdoing it. It’s a hangdog look, the look of a man for whom life has hit the rocks and he expects no better. As Gibson the actor shows the ravages of alcohol on his face, Walter the character shows the ravages of life there. It’s a performance that may on the surface seem over-the-top but when you peel the layers back you realize that you’re watching a man at the top of his craft constructing a gem of a performance.

Yes, there is some heavy handedness here – Walter unable to speak with his own voice and his son writing term papers and speeches in the voices of others but never his own while being terrified that he’s turning into his dad. Yup. And the literal battle for Walter’s soul that ends up….well, I won’t say because that would be telling.

The movie is considered  financial flop which can be attributed to the off-beat subject of the film (and Americans are less warm towards off-beat than they are to dramas, which is what Foster attributed the cold reception to) as well as quite frankly a general perception that Gibson is a jerk and his films should be avoided. That’s kind of sad because if you can filter out your feelings about the guy this is a pretty good movie, offbeat as it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson does a terrific job and has good chemistry with Foster.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit of a mess. Heavy-handed pop psychology.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and subject matter is pretty much on the adult side dealing with depression; there are a few bad words and some disturbing images, not to mention a teeny bit of sexuality and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foster originally wanted Kristen Stewart for the part of Norah but she was committed to doing Twilight so the then-unknown Lawrence was cast.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a major flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bourne Legacy

Lorna’s Silence (Le silence de Lorna)


Lorna's Silence (Le silence de Lorna)

Lorna's in a situation that gets more uncomfortable by the minute.

(Sony Classics) Arta Dobroshi, Jeremie Renier, Alban Ukaj, Fabrizio Rongione, Morgan Marinne, Olivier Gourmet, Anton Yakovlev, Grigori Manukov. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

What would you do for money? It’s a question that fortunately most of us don’t have to answer, but for some desperate souls this is a very real question that faces them every day. The answer changes in proportion to how desperate the subject is.

Lorna (Dobroshi) is very much a desperate soul. She’s an Albanian immigrant who has paid Belgian junkie Claudy (Renier) to marry her so that she might get legal residency in Belgium. Or, rather, her handlers have; the plan is that Claudy be given an overdose, at which time Lorna would achieve full citizenship. Then, she marries a Russian mobster, giving him citizenship, after which she would be given a good deal of cash to divorce the mobster, enough so that she and her itinerant worker boyfriend Sokol (Ukaj) can open up their own snack bar and get married themselves.

Sounds like a good plan, but Lorna doesn’t plan on feeling sympathy for Claudy, who is trying very hard to kick his habit and turn his life around. The sympathy turns into something else, and her heart becomes torn; she surely doesn’t want to be responsible for the ending of a human life. She asks her handler Fabio (Rongione) if she can just divorce Claudy instead, but that won’t work; the Russian is far too impatient and the divorce takes much longer to go through. Will Lorna keep her silence or break it and save Claudy’s life?

The Dardenne brothers are renowned in cinephile circles for a certain style of filmmaking that is almost documentarian in nature; it forces audiences to focus on the subject rather than on the action. This has netted them regular trips to Cannes, where they have won numerous awards.

Here, as in most of their films, they’re taking a peek at the darker side of human nature. The character of Lorna starts out as cold and callous, not wanting to acquire any sort of feelings for Claudy which in turn will make what is ahead easier for her. Unfortunately, as with most humans, there’s no telling what the heart will do and the better angels of her nature make an unexpected appearance.

Dobroshi and Renier are the best parts of this movie; they bring some humanity to parts that might otherwise might come off as cliché or pathetic. You get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t really judging their actions; they more or less sit back and film and let the characters do what they will. That’s their strength.

Unfortunately, they make a tactical error nearly halfway through the movie; I won’t tell you the nature of it because I understand why they made it and it’s crucial to how the story plays out. Unfortunately, it jars the audience right out of the movie and getting back into it is nearly impossible by that point. For this reason alone the movie got as low a rating as it did with me, because nearly every other element of the movie works exceedingly well, as you would expect from master filmmakers.

In America, there are few who even know the films of these Belgian brothers which is a bit of a shame; while some might be familiar with The Child, their best-known film in America, mostly they remain more of a continental taste. Those adventuresome film fans may want to take a gander at the work of these brothers, although this particular movie isn’t their best by a long stretch. Still, their lesser efforts are better than the masterworks of most filmmakers, so there is that.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine performances by Dobroshi and Renier make this compelling enough to recommend.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is unrelentingly grim and seedy. The movie makes a bit of a 90 degree turn just past midway through that jars the viewer out of the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and nudity and a little bit of violence and drug use (most of it implied); probably just enough to make this for mature teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only words in French that actress Dobroshi knew before being cast for the film were the days of the week; she had to learn the language in a crash course prior to filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The American

13 Tzameti


13 Tzameti

All right, all right, we'll film the damn thing in black and white!

(Palm Pictures) Georges Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurelien Recoing, Fred Ulysse, Nicolas Pignon, Vania Vilers, Olga Legrand, Christopher van de Velde, Agustin Legrand, Jo Prestia. Directed by Gela Babluani

Desperation can make us do extraordinary things. We will do whatever it takes to get out of the situation we’re in, risk anything – even our own lives.

Sebastien (Georges Babluani), a contractor barely making ends meet, accepts a job in a rundown old home for an immigrant Georgian couple. When he accidentally puts a hole in their roof, he overhears a conversation indicating that there is a package that promises great riches. When the Georgian owner dies of a drug overdose, Sebastien decides to take the package for himself.

It leads him to a dilapidated hotel in the middle of nowhere where a game is going on, a dangerous game that the French authorities would very much like to infiltrate and stop but a game that delivers to its victors great riches. Sebastien has no idea what he’s getting himself into from the get-go and by the time he realizes what’s going on, getting out is not an option. In fact, his only option is to win.

I’m deliberately leaving the plot summary very vague, because the less you know about this movie, the more enjoyment you’re likely to take out of it. It’s well-plotted and when you look back on it, you realize that the entire movie switched gears completely near the middle of the film, but so expertly is it done that not only do you not notice it but it feel very organic within the framework of the movie.

Gela Babluani won the Luigi de Laurentiis award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for the best first feature by a director, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema at the Sundance Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. A Georgian immigrant himself (whose brother plays Sebastien in the film), he has delivered a marvelous film, full of suspense and tension from the opening moments to the very last shot.

The mood is enhanced by the black and white photography, serving to make this an almost film noir kind of atmosphere, which is almost Hitchcockian in its simplicity yet with an elegant Gallic permeation that gives it an extra little twist.

Georges Babluani is marvelous as Sebastien. He is a bit on the passive side, mainly because terrible things tend to happen when he takes chances. He is neither a coward nor a hero but somewhere in between, an ordinary man driven by circumstances he doesn’t quite understand into extraordinary conditions. He behaves much the same as I think I’d behave in similar circumstances.

The game that he is forced to play (I won’t reveal much of it so as not to ruin the powerful effect of the movie) is stark and brutal, and is filmed in an almost industrial manner. Orders are barked with military precision and shots of stark, bare light bulbs reinforce the utilitarian feel. While there is a great deal of violence, there isn’t a whole lot of gore, at least not in the traditional sense. This isn’t a Saw movie except in only the barest sense of sadism in the creation of the game itself.

The thing that is the most extraordinary is that the game depicted here actually exists in France, and apparently it has been going on for some time. The movie is about the circumstances that would lead someone to play in a game with such high stakes, and in that sense the movie is wildly successful. If I had a quibble, there are just two; the people running the game are depicted as almost cliches and in some ways that makes them more terrifying because we don’t really get too much of an insight to them, but in the end the film would have been better if we had. Secondly, the incredible suspense of the first two thirds of the movie breaks down a little in the third and the ending is a bit anti-climactic.

Beyond that, however, this is a terrific movie that is well-worth seeing. Some might find the starkness off-putting and there are some who abhor both subtitles and black and white, but if you get past those prejudices, you will find a movie of extraordinary power and substance well worth your effort in getting to know better.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous air of tension and suspense filmed in beautiful black and white, giving it a feeling of a Hitchcock film noir with a French sophistication.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie isn’t able to maintain the suspenseful tone of the first third, and some of the characters surrounding the game are tissue-thin.

FAMILY VALUES: Mature subject matter and some scenes of shocking violence make this a no-no for child viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tzameti is the number 13 in Georgian, so the title is literally “13 Thirteen.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprisingly bountiful amount of interesting extras, like an interview with someone who actually participated in one of these underground shooting matches and survived, as well as a short film by Gene Laufenberg called The Sunday Game that fits nicely into the overall themes of 13 Tzameti. Finally, there’s an interview with Babluani discussing life as an immigrant in France. Overall, a very strong collection of extras, a definite keeper.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Lemon Tree