Beautiful Boy (2018)


A father and child reunion.

(2018) Biographical Drama (AmazonSteve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Amy Aquino, Timothy Hutton, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, LisaGay Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Carlton Wilborn, Stefanie Scott, Marypat Ferrell, Amy Forsyth, Kue Lawrence, Brandon Cienfuegos, Cheska Corona, Mandeiya Flory, Martha T. Newman. Directed by Felix van Groeningen

 

Drug addiction remains a problem for humankind; as a species we seem driven to do things we know are bad for us because they feel good. Nic Sheff (Chalamet) is a white, upper middle-class teen who seems to have everything; a loving family, particularly his father and two half-siblings he adores. He’s super-bright, having been accepted at every college he has applied to. His future looks exceedingly bright.

But for whatever reason Nic turns to drugs; what drives him there is never really explored in the film. Perhaps it was the divorce of his dad David (Carrell) – a respected journalist who was one of the last to interview John Lennon before his untimely death – from his mom (Ryan) who lives in L.A. David is remarried to Karen (Tierney) who struggles to understand her stepson.

Nic’s addiction takes the family on a roller coaster ride of disappearances, binge drug use, periods of sobriety, then repeating the cycle again. David grows more desperate, trying to figure out what is driving his son; the two fight a lot but David is fiercely protective of his son, refusing to give up on him. This puts strain on his marriage as his wife begins to feel that he’s neglecting his current family for his ailing son. At last, with Nic fast approaching rock bottom, David is forced to make a terrible choice.

The movie is based on two books – one written by David, the other by Nic – and uses both to get the viewpoints of both characters. Van Groeningen seems pretty even-handed here; he doesn’t make amy judgements but presents the behaviors for the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s hard at times not to get angry with Nic, who at times seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. There is a wrenching scene in a diner when Nic, who is showing signs of relapsing, asks his father for money so he can move to New York. David begs him to stay in Northern California but Nic doesn’t like the vibe. Things escalate and it ends badly for both men. There is also a scene very late in the movie where David, following a phone call from Nic, finally accepts that he can’t help his son. After giving Nic some tough love, David breaks down and slowly starts taking the pictures of his son down from his office. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that families of addicts may well identify with.

I can’t say enough about the performances of both Carrell and Chalamet. Carrell, like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks before him, has morphed from a zany comic actor to an outstanding dramatic actor. I think he’s a role or two away from being a regular part of the Oscar conversation. As for Chalamet, after an unforgettable performance in Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young actors in Hollywood. He may well be the best young actor since Pacino.

The movie also benefits by one of the most fascinating and most diverse soundtracks I’ve ever seen. It has everything from opera to punk to ambient pop to jazz to classic rock to folk to easy listening. On the negative side, the movie from time to time (albeit rarely) descends into maudlin territory. Van Groeningen also likes to employ flashbacks to help explain the actions going on.

This can be very hard to watch at times; nearly unbearable. There are also some moments that are incredibly tender. Father-son relationships often get the shaft when it comes to Hollywood; dads are often portrayed as lovable but befuddled buffoons who have no clue what’s going on. This is a very real and very touching portrayal of a close father-son relationship that is put to the most torturous test imaginable.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling performances by Carrell and Chalamet. A fascinating and diverse soundtrack enhances the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashbacks are sometimes intrusive and hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly straightforward drug content, plenty of profanity and some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Royo, who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, also played a drug addict himself on The wire.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Camp Cold Brook

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

Mister Foe (Hallam Foe)


Mister Foe

Hallam Foe likes to watch.

(Magnolia) Jamie Bell, Ciaran Hines, Claire Forlani, Ruthie Milne, John Paul Lawler, Lucy Holt, Sophia Myles, Jamie Sives, Maurice Roeves. Directed by David Mackenzie

Sometimes a lead character can be someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with ordinarily, at least on the surface. The mark of a good movie, though, is that you are still enthralled by that character despite not liking them much.

That’s what happened to me in this movie. Scottish youth Hallam Foe (Bell) is still mourning his mum, drowned in the local loch. His dad (Hines) has married Verity (Forlani) who was once his secretary. All three of them live in a large house in the Scottish borders along with Hallam’s sister Lucy (Holt). While mum’s death was ruled an accident, Hallam remains convinced that she was murdered by Verity, whose marriage to his dad seemed a bit too convenient by half.

The shock of his mum’s death has made Hallam, well, a little bit weird. When he feels stressed he puts on a badger hat and paints his face with lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow in a kind of war paint and when he’s really stressed he puts on one of his mum’s old dresses. He also has a habit to spy on his neighbors and family, particularly when they are having sex. Yes, he’s a Peeping Tom.

After Verity and Hallam have sex in the treehouse Hallam’s architect dad built for him, Verity forces Hallam to leave so that dad doesn’t find out. Hallam runs away to Edinburgh where he finds a peeper’s paradise. He finds a home in a rooftop clock, menial work in a hotel where he is stunned to find that the human resources manager Kate (Myles) is the spittin’ image of his dear departed mum. So he watches her sleep and have sex with a brutal married manager (Sives), eventually taking up a relationship with her himself.

However, he is full of problems and his rage towards his father for marrying whom he considers to be the murderer of his mother needs an outlet. Soon Hallam’s world begins to come crashing down around his ears.

This was a movie that could easily have been as unlikable as the lead character seemed to be on paper, but as it turns out it wasn’t. That’s a credit both to director Mackenzie, whose light touch kept the movie from spiraling into indie angst, and to actor Bell who delivers a nuanced performance that keeps Hallam sympathetic even as he’s doing unsympathetic things. Bell, who first gained notice in Billy Elliott, is growing as an actor by leaps and bounds. This is a role that he may not be necessarily remembered for, but one that will build his reputation among those who can take his career further. That’s not a bad thing to say.

The supporting cast doesn’t let him down either. Myles, who has quite the baby face, delivers a performance of great depth, bringing a very complicated character to life in a believable way. Hinds, one of the most dependable character actors out there, gets to stretch a little bit as a man who is very cold on the outside that is hiding a great deal of pain on the inside, while Forlani gives “cast iron bitch” a whole new spin.

The soundtrack contains a goodly number of Scottish indie bands, from the Orange Juice on up to more contemporary bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Four Tet. Still, the band has that kind of indie smugness in places, getting a little too clever in its presentation for its own good.

This is one of those movies that is solid, entertaining in its own way but more successful as a human study. The insight into a troubled soul can be dark and scary, but Mister Foe makes it a little bit less so; in fact, it makes it downright desirable.

WHY RENT THIS: An affecting performance by Bell with plenty of great support, particularly from Myles, Forlani and Hines. A tremendous soundtrack with plenty of superb Scottish indie bands, too.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie is too clever for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality here including some fairly twisted stuff. Quite frankly this should be for adult audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Peter Jinks.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The End of the Line