Before I Disappear


When you're a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

When you’re a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

(2014) Drama (Fuzzy Logic) Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff, Joseph Perrino, Isabelle McNally, Joseph DeVito, Hani Avital, James Chen, Greg Connolly, Anthoula Katsimatides, Josh Mann, Sean Ringgold, James Andrew O’Connor, Patrick Miller, Jacqui Denski, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Roseanne Ludwigson. Directed by Shawn Christensen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Out of our life choices comes our life; those choices tend to define who we are and not only in the eyes of others. We are what we do. That doesn’t mean that our worst life choices can’t be redeemed but it’s never easy. Sometimes it takes a really bad night for us to find redemption, especially if we’re not particularly looking for it.

Richie (Christensen) is the very poster boy for “loser” – a New York City junkie. He makes what meager money he can by cleaning toilets in a hip club with underworld connections that don’t quite pay his debts and barely pay for his drugs. He lives in a POS apartment that even a cockroach might turn its nose up at – assuming cockroaches have noses which I don’t think they do. But I digress.

Late one night he makes a terrible discovery in one of the bathroom stalls, the kind of discovery that can shut a club down even if it’s connected. His hamfisted boss Bill (Perlman) encourages him not to speak of what he has seen and as a gift he gives him some heroin.

Richie may be a junkie but he understands the streets. He knows what’s what and he knows that his boss intends for him to take the heroin and die. Richie still has a little pride left however; he’s going to slit his own wrists. Ha ha on you, Bill.

As Richie soaks in the tub waiting for the end to come the phone rings. More as a Pavlovian reflex than anything else, he answers it – it’s his sister, Maggie (Rossum) whom he has been estranged from and hasn’t spoken to in years. She’s desperate – she’s been detained and has no one to pick up her daughter Sophie (Ptacek) from school. Maggie is shrill and nearly hysterical and so Richie rouses himself, bandages himself up with packing tape and plods off to save the day.

In the course of a day into the wee hours of the morning, Sophie will accompany Richie from the refined apartments and schools of the hoi polloi to the seediest underbelly of skid row. Sophie, smart and driven, is used to having her schedule planned to the tick. Richie is used to things going wrong. The two couldn’t be further apart on the evolutionary scale if Richie sprouted a tail and hung from trees by his toes. Yet somehow, they find that blood really is thicker than water and that not every winner has it all, nor every loser without redeeming qualities.

That sounds like typical Hollywood crap no doubt; two opposites coming together and making of each other something better than they were. Christensen does it so skillfully here however, so organically that you believe every sordid second of it. Part of the reason this works is that Christensen was wise enough to cast himself in the lead. Perhaps that sounds more like ego than wisdom but trust me, it’s not ego when you deliver. Christensen has that look of a puppy whose been kicked too many times by a cruel master. That cruel master in Richie’s case is life itself.

Throughout the movie, Richie is writing a suicide note to Vista (McNally), his girlfriend who he has been separated from. It’s never explicitly stated, but I get the sense that Vista has preceded Richie into the great beyond and that’s part of Richie’s motivation for wanting to slit his wrists. Still, his little niece gives him a reason to delay that trip at least for a little while.

The chemistry between Ptacek and Christensen is also genuine. Ptacek is a mature actress, much more so than you would think from someone of her tender years. Sophie has a great deal of strength on the surface, but beneath the veneer she’s a lonely little girl who wants to make her mommy proud. The part is equal parts sass and vulnerability and Ptacek pulls both off masterfully.

Schiff, Perlman and Rossum are all veterans who have a trio of fine resumes; other than Rossum, none of them are on screen much but they make the most of their time and give the film a little more cache than it might have otherwise.

Before I Disappear is essentially the extension of Christensen’s Oscar-winning live-action short Curfew which introduces the characters in a very similar situation. Ptacek and Christensen both appear in it, although there is a different actress playing Maggie. Still, when you can get someone like Emmy Rossum who to her credit is doing a much different role than we’re used to seeing from her.

This is a keeper, folks. It’s one of those movies that has just enough levity to keep from being dreary, but is serious enough to retain authenticity. It will put you through an emotional wringer and make you care about Richie and Sophie and even Maggie who can be quite bitchy. While some may not appreciate the sleazy element and the glimpse at a very sordid part of the world, one can’t help but think that this could be the kind of film that inspires an entire movement – call it modern noir if you like. Just be sure and give me the credit when you do.

REASONS TO GO: Gritty. Well-performed all around. Terrific story. Christensen amazing in lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too rough for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of foul language, disturbing images, drug use, violence and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at this year’s South by Southwest where it won the Audience Award.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: L’Enfant

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Le Chef

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World’s Greatest Dad


World's Greatest Dad

Sometimes comedy really DOES make the strangest bedfellows.

(Magnolia) Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Mitzi McCall, Henry Simmons, Geoff Pierson, Morgan Murphy, Daniel Glick, Evan Martin, Bruce Hornsby. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

When someone dies young, there is a tendency to accentuate the more positive aspects of the deceased’s character and ignore the negative. After all, nobody particularly likes to speak ill of the dead, right?

Lance Clayton (Williams) is a wannabe novelist, one who has written five novels and gotten exactly zero of them published. Still, he continues to try and while he does, he continues with his temporary vocation, a high school English teacher reading poetry to students who could care less.

His son Kyle (Sabara) is a rat bastard. He is hateful to nearly everybody and is sexually obsessed to the point of creepiness. Masturbation isn’t just an occasional pleasure for him; it’s the biggest part of his day. His only friend is Andrew (Martin), a skinny reed of a boy who is much brighter than Kyle.

Kyle regards Lance with roughly the same contempt that a billionaire regards a bum. Still, Lance can take solace in his sexless romance with Claire (Gilmore), who teaches art at the same school but even that soon becomes threatened. Fellow teacher Mike (Simmons) publishes his first story in the New Yorker and suddenly Claire seems to be casting her gaze in Mike’s direction. That’s not too much of a shocker; Claire is remarkably shallow and Mike is much younger and more handsome than Lance.

One night Lance returns home to find Kyle dead. The death was accidental; he had strangled himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, but despite the harsh relationship he had with his son, he simply can’t bear the truth coming out about the manner in which Kyle, already pretty much despised by everyone, died – whipping his weasel as it were. As a loving dad, he rearranges the death scene, writes a suicide note and puts out the fiction the Kyle hung himself.

The fall-out from this is unexpected. Suddenly the student body and faculty become sympathetic, guilty at the shabby treatment Kyle had been afforded in life. When Lance writes a fake journal purportedly authored by Kyle, it becomes a sensation and Lance suddenly has the literary success that had always eluded him, even if he wasn’t getting credit for it. Now there are appearances on talk shows and talk of movie deals. Even Claire has come back to him with a vengeance.

But it’s all based on a lie, and that digs at him. The strange thing is that the effects of the lie have made things better; people are opening up, communicating and coming out. But can Lance’s conscience live with the deception?

Goldthwait has given us what can charitably be called offbeat comedies (in the form of the alcoholic circus performer Shakes the Clown and the bestiality comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie) and more accurately called button-pushers. As a filmmaker (and before that, as one of the best stand-up comics of the ‘80s) he has pushed the boundaries and forced his audiences to look at unpleasant things in order to deal with issues like trust and fear.

Here he works with his close friend Williams and it’s a good pairing; this is one of Williams’ best performances in ages, maybe going back to Good Morning Vietnam. He handles the pathos of discovering his son’s body with great dignity, and keeps his comedy restrained. I guess it could be fair to say that he’s mellowed with age, but in any case, he’s become a much more well-rounded performer, although I still recall his manic rants with fond affection.

Sabara has the thankless job of playing an utter douchebag, one who is without any positive qualities whatsoever. Not many actors, who as a species tend to crave attention and love, would even attempt a role like this but Sabara does it almost too well, making his early exit a relief in many ways. Gilmore plays the narcissistic shallow Claire with a certain amount of flair, even being brave enough to allow a couple of upskirt photos which become very germane to the plot.

The irony of the film is what I thought worked best about it; that the death of a miserable prick gets him nearly canonized which in turn brings about changes in attitude for the better. There’s a message there about how we choose to see things, and trying to grab something to identify with – one of the running conceits of the movie is how many “close friends” Kyle had after death when in reality his only friend was Andrew all along, and Andrew alone is the only one who gets off scot-free, being literally the only one in the movie who doesn’t exploit Kyle’s death for their own benefit.

There is a level of cynicism here that might give a few viewers some pause, but it would be wise to remember that what is depicted here is human nature nonetheless. I found the movie enjoyable, at its best curiously when it was more serious. It’s not that the comedy is unfunny; it’s just that the movie seemed to find its rhythm when it was looking at grief less cynically. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all then.

WHY RENT THIS: Comedy doesn’t get any blacker than this. Williams gives one of his better performances in years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sabara is so unlikable it’s actually a relief when his character is killed off. The movie could have used a better balance between pathos and comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of vulgar language, some fairly sophisticated and twisted sexuality, drug use and deeply disturbing situations. I would probably restrict this to mature teens only and even then you might want to have the remote nearby in case of emergency fast-forward or full stop.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for Nirvana, has a cameo as a newspaper vendor who hugs Lance. The irony here is that one of the tangential themes is teen suicide, and of course Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Coabin committed suicide himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting music video for “I Hope I Become a Ghost” by the Deadly Syndrome, containing some minimalist surreal animation. Tres cool.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,805 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beer for My Horses