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

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Words and Pictures


Words and Pictures(2013) Romance (Roadside Attractions) Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valerie Tian, Navid Negahban, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder, Christian Schneider, Keegan Connor Tracy, Andrew McIlroy, Harrison MacDonald, Willem Jacobson, Tanaya Beatty, Tosh Turner, Style Dayne, Mackenzie Caldwell, Eva Allan. Directed by Fred Schepisi

Florida Film Festival 2014

Brevity is the soul of wit. A picture is worth a thousand words.

In a sense, the war between images and verbiage has been going on for quite some time. Writers like myself tend to take the stance that words are the most important aspect of human culture; without words there would be no way to codify our thoughts, to take our greatest concepts and make them real. Artists like my sister tend to believe that pictures are more important; they are expressions of the human soul and can communicate at a glance what it would take pages of words to do. So who’s right?

At a tony New England prep school, that argument is being made flesh. The popular English teacher, Jack Marcus (Owen) whom the students affectionately call Mr. Marc, leads the charge of the word brigade. A well-regarded published author, he can be one of those affectionate curmudgeons, calling his students “droids” and privately despairing of their willingness to pull their heads out of their social media. He’s a scruffy sort but the kids love him.

On the other side is the new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a very respected artist. She’s somewhat prickly and immediately puts up a wall between herself and her students – “I’m not here to be your friend,” she tells her students on the very first day, “and I don’t want to hear about your problems.” But, if they want to know how to paint, how to express themselves through art, they’ve come to the right place. She’s passionate about art in general and eventually, about her students.

But these people are very flawed. Jack has become a raging alcoholic, and hasn’t published anything in years. Some very public drunken spectacles have made the school’s board of regents extremely uncomfortable and there are some who want him gone, including other teachers although the loyal Walt (Davison) sticks by his side. Jack also has a very difficult relationship with his son which leads to a whole lot of self-loathing. Jack even appropriates one of his son’s poems and displays it as his own.

Dina on the other hand has severe rheumatoid arthritis which has prevented her from painting a workable piece of art in years. Her frustration at being denied a means of self-expression has resulted in her building walls around her, pushing people away and being generally disagreeable most of the time. And, of course, she looks at Jack as the enemy.

And, of course too she and Jack will soon develop feelings for each other, this being an American movie. But unexpectedly, the student body begins to become involved in the “war” as sides are drawn and debate is engendered. More importantly, they begin to use their minds for something other than figuring out how to beat a boss in the latest videogame, but the newfound relationship between Jack and Dina threatens to destroy them both. Can they inspire their students and each other to be better?

Veteran Australian Schepisi is given a pretty interesting concept to wrestle with, although writer Gerald Di Pego wastes it in a lot of ways by failing to flesh out most of the characters in the film other than the two leads. I find it a bit ironic that the two teachers in the film were supposed to be inspiring their students, but those students are little more than the walking dead – uncaring, mainly just present in their seats with almost nothing to offer during the film. That’s not the fault of the young actors in those seats; they’re given nothing to work with.

On the other hand when you have actors the caliber of Owen and Binoche, you don’t need much else. Their banter is so natural and genuine you have to imagine they are the best of friends off-set. Both of them pull the audience in not only to their viewpoint but to their characters, and both have their battle scars from life. Some are more obvious, like Jack’s drinking or Dina’s anger but much of their vulnerability comes through their eyes, in glances that they give each other as if to say are you going to let me down too? without saying a word. In that sense, I suppose pictures do say a thousand words.

Like a lot of movies over the past couple of years, Words and Pictures fails to learn from its own battle. The movie runs on too long going over the wrong things over and over again. Yes, we get that Jack is an alcoholic and apt to make a spectacular drunken ass of himself at inopportune moments. Yes, we get that Dina is bitter and has lost her inspiration amid the very real pain she’s suffering. We don’t need more than one or two instances to prove the point. If the movie is going to be that long, I’d have much rather gotten more of a look into what the kids were doing and feeling. Teenagers are people too.

I like the idea of a debate between words and pictures. After all, they’re two of the primary ways that humans use to communicate (music being the other). The filmmakers let the audience pick their own side and while writers like myself are naturally going to gravitate towards Owen’s impassioned speech near the end of the film, there is no shame in feeling more akin to Binoche’s own soliloquy. There is also no shame in finding a middle ground and deciding both carry equal importance.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting debate. Owen and Binoche make the film.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit too long. The kids are inane. A few too many rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some mature thematic elements, some sketches depicting the nude human form, and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The paintings used in the film were all painted by Binoche, an accomplished artist for years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Neighbors

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

The Words


The Words

Bradley Cooper tries to explain to Zoe Saldana why she can’t be in The Hangover III

(2012) Drama (CBS) Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Zeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Stauber. Directed by Brian Klugman and Len Sternthal

 

Writing is near and dear to my heart. I am fascinated by words and like to use a lot of big ones. I don’t apologize for that. Communication is my job and I like to be precise about it. Still, as I’m fond of saying, I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. Those who write for a living will tell you that they didn’t pick their particular career choice; it chose them.

Clay Hammond (Quaid) is reading from his latest best seller. A comely grad student named Daniella (Wilde) approaches him from the audience and asks him for more detail about his story than he had given during the reading. Clay, who is separated from his wife, is a little tipsy and responds to the flirting. He starts to tell her about it.

Rory Jansen (Cooper) has dreams of being a writer. He works for three years on a novel, pouring out his heart. It’s good, he’s told but not great. He, like many struggling writers, begins to collect rejection slips like Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. His girlfriend Dora (Saldana) is supportive; his dad (Simmons) not so much, although there is clearly affection between them. It’s just that dear old dad wants his son to grow up and take responsibility, understanding that not every dream is achievable.

Rory and Dora (which sounds a bit like a preschoolers cartoon – couldn’t you have come up with better names than that?) eventually get married and wind up honeymooning in Paris (which is a bit pricey for struggling young newlyweds but let’s assume they got it as a gift) and while antique hunting Dora finds a beautiful old valise which she buys for Rory to use at his new job in the mailroom at a literary agency.

Still, Rory is depressed about his stalled career and wonders if he has the talent to be somebody. His depression begins to create a gulf between him and his friends and even between him and Dora. Then Rory finds a manuscript in the valise, one that has been sitting there for a long while. He begins reading it. He can’t put it down. It’s almost like a slap in the face; here is the novel he’s always wanted to write and someone else has written it. He becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know what it would be like to write something like that, so he takes the typewritten manuscript and types it, word for word including the misspelled words, into his laptop. He leaves it there and forgets about it.

But Dora finds it. She insists that he take it to an agent so he does. The agent (Ivanek) loves it. It gets published. The little book becomes a sensation. At first Rory feels guilty over plagiarizing the work but reasons that it was a means to an end; the novels he couldn’t get published now have deals and all due to this forgotten manuscript. He wins awards and becomes rich. His relationship with Dora becomes stronger.

One day while reading on a bench in Central Park, an old man (Irons) sidles up and sits nearby. The old man recognizes him and gets his copy of the book autographed. Then the old man tells him a story; the story of a young man (Barnes) in Paris after World War II. The young man becomes smitten with Celia (Arnezeder), a waitress in a sidewalk cafe. She falls in love with him. They marry but after a tragedy they separate. He becomes disconsolate without her. He writes a book, one he pours all his heart and soul into. The words flow out like a river. It is finished in two weeks.

He sends it to her and she reads it. She’s amazed and agrees to come home. Unfortunately, the valise she put the novel in got left aboard a train. It disappears – and it’s absence comes between the young man and Celia just as surely as a brick wall would.

The line between fiction and fact blurs a little in The Words. It isn’t about writing so much, although the demon in Rory that compels him to write, that compels him to be adored for it, is one I know all too well. But this is a story about guilt and how it gets into a relationship insidiously destroying it from within. It destroys people as well.

The three stories are all interrelated, but which ones are true and which ones are fantasy are pretty much left up to the interpretation of the audience (my take? All three). It is a story inside of a story within a story which while not an original means of telling a story is nonetheless not an easy one and takes a deft hand to pull off, which it is here.

It helps to have some strong performances from the male leads, and the filmmakers get them. Irons is one of those actors who looks and sounds great even when uttering banal lines. He’s memorable when onscreen and his scenes with Cooper are among the best in the movie. Quaid also has some fine moments although he is little more than a framing device. Still, there’s some thought and depth to his character.

The women don’t fare as well – Saldana gets the most screen time among them but for the most part the women in the movie aren’t developed quite as well as the men are. They are entirely reactive and serve either as ornaments or as plot devices. It’s not a commentary on them as actresses; more of a commentary on the writing.

It is meant to be literate and there is a bit of the hoity toity “writers are special” attitude that movies about writers sometimes get. And, as a movie about words, there are a lot of them. Much of the action moves through dialogue and there are voiceovers throughout. And while you may not see everything coming (to their credit the filmmakers refuse to spell things out although you can pretty much figure things out) the story isn’t what you’d call ground-breaking.

Still this is a smart movie that also appeals to the heart. The Old Man is a figure you will have a great deal of sympathy for, even though much of his dilemma is of his own making. I have to say I was inspired to go and do some writing after seeing this, even though that’s something I do every day. Writing movie reviews is one thing. Writing something that counts, something that means something to somebody and gives them insight to life or at least their own soul – that’s an entirely different thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful and literate. Inspires me to write. Fine performances by Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly talky. Story is a bit been-there done-that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rough language in certain places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosamund Pike was considered for the role of Daniella but it eventually went to Olivia Wilde.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are horrible.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LOVERS: The book that inspires the Young Man to writing is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Jackal