Monday, June 23, 2014

Meth Head

If anyone was afraid this blog's love affair with Blake Berris would wane after his time on Days of Our Lives drew to a close I am here to tell you you've got nothing to fear. And if, like me, you've been in need of a Blake fix since Nick Fallon's demise last month then I humbly suggest you check out Jane Clark's excellent directorial debut, Meth Head, which is now available on DVD and through various streaming services. An assured and unflinching piece of filmmaking, featuring strong, fearless performances, Clark's directorial debut almost feels, at times, like a documentary. There is no attempt to sugar coat or glamorize any of the characters' lives or any of the harrowing events that occur. I applaud the film's brutally honest approach; it's not easy to watch but, given the subject matter, why should it be?

Meth Head stars Lukas Haas as Kyle Peoples, a man in his mid-thirties who appears, at first glance, to be leading a fairly happy life. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the tiny cracks in the facade are evident. Kyle's family obviously cares about him but his relationship with his father, an ambitious alpha male who fears his political career will be negatively impacted by his son's sexual orientation, is strained at best and, at times, outright acrimonious. Kyle's own career ambitions are little more than pipe dreams and his reality is an accounting job that he loathes. Even his engagement to boyfriend Julian (Wilson Cruz) is a source of frustration, since Julian is more grounded, succesful and contented with his life than the restless, dissatisfied Kyle. 

When Kyle and Julian attend a swanky fundraiser one night they cross paths with Dusty (Blake Berris), a charismatic young dealer who offers them each a bump of crystal meth. From there Kyle's life quickly spirals out of control as he succumbs to his addiction to the drug. His relationship with his family and his fiance deteriorates and, having alienated everyone else in his life, Kyle eventually moves in with Dusty and his friend Maia (Necar Zadegan). The trio attempt to create a sort of surrogate family together but what happiness they find in each other's company is short lived as their addiction soon blinds them to everything else in their lives and they are forced into increasingly dangerous and horrific situations in order to secure that next fix. When Kyle eventually faces the harsh truth that the drugs are killing him he must decide if he's going to give himself over to them or fight to regain control of his life.

Watching Meth Head last week got me thinking about other drug addiction movies I'd seen and the two that first came to mind, the ones that made the most lasting impression on me, were Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. Both are powerful, harrowing movies but, in each, there's an element of the surreal that offsets the horror of the situation. That's not to say that either film is easy to watch (or glorifies drug use), just that that slight disconnect with reality acts as a buffer, of sorts, between the audience and the poor souls whose lives are unraveling up on the screen. There's no buffer from the brutality in Meth Head. And I really felt for the characters, not just because they were suffering so much but because, even at their lowest, they were genuinely appealing. 

I love the middle section of the movie, when Kyle moves in with Dusty and Maia, partly because it offers the lightest moments in the narrative but also because the dynamic between the three characters is fascinating. Kyle and Dusty could hardly be more different from one another but their motivations seem to stem from similar sources. Both have family members who love them and express concern for them but the two men seem to be out of step with their loved ones. There's an almost childlike quality about both of them that's heartbreaking, as if they're too immature and aimless to realize their dreams and see no alternative but to opt out and surrender themselves to their vices. And if they're the lost boys Maia is their Wendy, who tries to care for the people in her life that matter to her but fails because she can't even care for herself. 

Clark's compassionate writing, her nonjudgemental approach to her characters, is one of the reasons Meth Head is so rewarding to watch. Another reason is the actors, who all do terrific work. Lukas Haas plays Kyle with so much nervous, aggravated energy that it's easy to believe he's entirely ill at ease inside his own skin. It's a jarring performance and it puts us right into the headspace of a man who is awkward and uncomfortable enough with himself that the desire to disconnect and escape his own reality makes perfect sense. Necar Zadegan is adept at projecting Maia's cool, collected exterior as well as the hurt and melancholy that's hidden underneath it. And Blake Berris - in my not entirely unbiased opinion - is utterly compelling as Dusty. His performance is so effortless, he's so natural and at ease in front of the camera, that it's impossible not to fall prey to his considerable charms. But Berris also has a knack for making difficult characters incredibly sympathetic. He did it with Nick on Days and he does it here, too. There is a sensitivity, a wounded, vulnerable quality to Dusty that made me feel for him even when he was saying or doing hurtful things. It's a terrific accomplishment. There are strong turns from all the supporting players, too, especially Wilson Cruz and Candis Cayne, whose Pinkie provides some much-needed tough love (and a touch of much-appreciated levity) towards the end of the story.

Meth Head is hard, challenging material but if you're up for the challenge it is well worth your time.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

So many book to film adaptations get it wrong. They're either tediously faithful, to the point where they feel cluttered and rushed, or they water things down, altering and omitting precious details and creating work that bears little to no resemblance to the original source material (looking at you, Time Traveler's Wife). It's hard to transform a beloved book into a viable feature film. I imagine it involves all kinds of tough decisions. How do you decide what to cut and what to leave in in order to produce a piece of art that honors the original text but also transforms it into an entirely new work? I imagine some filmmakers have it easier than others; a smaller, more straightforward narrative probably lends itself to cinematic adaptation more easily than an enormous tome with a cast of hundreds or a nonlinear storyline might. 

On the surface John Green's YA bestseller The Fault in Our Stars seems like a fairly uncomplicated story to translate from page to screen - Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two bright, witty teens battling cancer, meet in a support group and fall in love - but, in the wrong hands, it could have been a disaster. This isn't your typical Love Story-style cancer romance. Disease and death aren't plot points introduced in the third act to give otherwise bland and uninteresting characters depth or to teach the audience meaningful life lessons. The cancer is there from the outset and it is dealt with in a straightforward manner. At the same time illness in no way defines Hazel and Gus. They are wonderful, fully realized, fascinating young people who just happen to be sick. 

I read The Fault in Our Stars last spring and fell in love with Hazel, Gus and the rest of the finely drawn, endearing, believable characters in Green's novel. Any time I'm invested in a piece of literature like that I want to see it treated properly on the big screen. And, yes, I'm sure every single reader has a slightly different concept of what "treating the material properly" looks like and I can't speak for anyone else but, far as I'm concerned, the filmmakers got everything right with this adaptation. The plot and, more importantly, the characterizations, are incredibly faithful to their source. The movie, like the book before it, is aimed at young people and the tone of the picture is youthful and hip but in an understated way. There's nothing flashly or superfluous about the filmmaking, which allows the characters to truly shine. And, my God, how they shine. The screenplay captures the warmth and the acerbic wit of Hazel and Gus and Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort play these beloved characters to perfection. All of the intelligence and charm that Green gave us on the page is replicated in Woodley and Elgort's heartfelt performances. They have the talent and the chemistry to bring Hazel and Gus to vibrant life. They are dynamite together.

The rest of the cast should also be commended. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are quietly effective as Hazel's parents and Nat Wolff, playing Gus and Hazel's friend Isaac, makes a big impression in a small role. Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek and the other secondary players also do a terrific job. There is so much warmth and life in this movie, just like there was in the book. And both are deserving of the love and praise that they're receiving.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Adam and Eve are a centuries-old vampire couple. They have been married for ages and are completely devoted to and in love with one another, even though, when Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive opens, they are seen living apart. Adam (played by Tim Hiddleston) lives a near-reclusive existence on the outskirts of Detroit; his only contact with the rest of the world is through his visits to a local hospital, to secure fresh blood donations for sustenance, and his pleasant but brief interactions with a young man named Ian (an affable Anton Yelchin), who acts as his personal courier and provides him with everything he needs or wants. For the most part Adam, a musician and collector, wants instruments. When Ian brings him a new guitar Adam displays an enormous amount of respect for the object, admiring both its history and the craftsmanship that went into making it. Adam has great reverence for human invention and creativity but he is also quick to criticize the current state of humanity. He refers to Ian, and the human race in general, as zombies. He has lived so long that he has seen some of the greatest of mankind's accomplishments but he laments the fact that so many great minds are undervalued, cast aside, all but forgetten. Adam devotes almost all of his free time to composing music in his home but he has no desire to share his work with the world and expressly forbids Ian from sharing it as well. Fame is the furthest thing from Adam's mind; his music is entirely personal, his constant companion, a way, perhaps, to alleviate his melancholy and his ennui. When he asks Ian to find a craftsman who can fashion a wooden bullet for him we begin to understand that Adam's compositions and his intense love for his wife do not provide enough balm to sooth the brooding immortal's tortured soul.

Eve (played to immortal perfection by Tilda Swinton), on the other hand, is an absolute delight. Even though her day to day existence also seems fairly isolated she is curious, playful and vibrant. For an undead character she is entirely full of life. Eve gets her own blood supply from her buddy Kit Marlowe (yes, that Marlowe, played awesomely by John Hurt), who keeps her well stocked in "the good stuff" from France. When a conversation with Adam tips her off that something is amiss with him she travels to Detroit to be with her husband. Jarmusch takes his time establishing both his primary characters, so that when we finally see Adam and Eve together it's quite thrilling, even if their nightly routine is somewhat understated. Mostly, they sit around listening to Adam's music and his extensive record collection. Sometimes they drive the lonely middle-of-the-night streets of Detroit. At one point Adam drives Eve past the childhood home of Jack White, whom she adores. "Little Jack White" she coos with affection as she gazes out the car window at the unassuming house. Adam and Eve's happy reunion is cut short when Eve's screwball baby sister Ava arrives on the scene. Ava is played by Mia Wasikowska, an actress I absolutely adore. There's a decent age difference between Wasikowska and Swinton but the difference between Ava and Eve is never established. Were they blood sisters - in which case they would be roughly the same age, give or take a decade or two? - or did Eve turn Ava at some later date? Is Ava immature because she's much, much younger than Eve or has she always been this way? There's no clear-cut answer (or, if there was, I missed it) and I was never entirely able to answer the question for myself. Maybe it doesn't matter.

For me, Only Lovers Left Alive plays like a strange, sad funeral dirge for the human race. By making the protaginists immortal Jarmusch gives us an opportunity to stand outside of humanity and critique it, just like Adam does. When Adam despairs of all the missed chances and failed opportunities we despair for him because he's overwhelmed by centuries worth of disappointment. How could he not be devastated? But then we look at Eve, who's every bit as old and wise as Adam. And isn't it admirable and marvelous that she can still find things that delight her completely, after all that time? There are so many vampire movies around: some make them monsters, some make them lovers, some make them tragic figures. I'm not sure I've ever seen another vampire movie that placed so much emphasis on the vampire characters' connection to and distance from their human brethren. I loved that thoughtful, melancholy approach. Jarmusch is able to capture all the allure and sex appeal of the vampire but also make him (or her) an actual character with which an audience member like me can identify. It's a marvelous accomplishment, made all the more impressive because it's done with such coolness and subtlety.