Local cinemas this week

A father battles his son’s addiction , a super spooky movie from Britain and another tone-death Aussie misfire.

Beautiful Boy

Belgian director Felix van Groeningen reduced me to a blubbering wreck with Broken Circle Breakdown, and he almost did it again with his first English language film. Almost, but not quite – I felt this one more with my head than my heart… Beautiful Boy is the story of one well-off teen’s (Call Me by Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet) descent into drug hell and his loving dad’s (Steve Carrell) efforts to save him, and it’s based on the real-life memoirs of both father and son. Both actors are fantastic, and the films is well worth seeing for their performances alone. But it’s an important “issue film” too, one which raises so many issues about our liberal attitudes to drug use that its almost impossible to know where to begin, or even begin to process what it all means.

Set in Marin County north of San Fransisco, it also looks just stunning – rarely has the Californian lifestyle looked so seductive and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Though maybe not the scene when Nic (Chalamet) is slumped on the floor of a San Francisco dive’s toilet with a needle in his arm while Henryk Górecki’s mournful Symphony No 3 does its usual thing. (Can we have a moratorium on the use of that track in movies, please?) He grew up wanting for nothing; a bright, intelligent editor of the school newspaper living with his supportive father David (Carell) and doting stepmother (Maura Tierney) near the surf in a well-off home which literally drips in bohemian West Coast-style, all natural weathered redwood and the latest high tech. David’s a successful journalist himself who writes for Rolling Stone and New York Times, and there is pot around the house (of course there is), which Nic clearly used from an early age. Then when crystal (what we call ice) comes along, Nic found what he was looking for, and his world went “from black and white to Technicolor.”

The episodic rhythms of addiction films are utterly predictable, although as written by Australia’s Luke Davis (the Candy author who knows a thing or two about this subject), the film largely avoids them and drops us right in, and then tosses us a few curly loops. While most of the praise has been lavished on the two leads, both Tierney and Amy Ryan, who plays Nic’s real LA-based mum deserve a mention, with all three parents tragically demonstrating the destructive enabling role so many adults play in the lives of their drug-using offspring. Andre Royo (“Bubbles” from The Wire) also makes a welcome appearance as Nic’s 12-Steps sponsor. It’s great to see he’s put his five seasons of work on the world’s greatest series on what capitalism’s use of drugs is doing to our world to good use. Beautiful Boy is almost as important a piece of work (yes, almost – again..) At the very least it will leave everyone who sees it with a whole lot to think about*. CTC from Oct 25. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

*Postscript: should we cry about our “beautiful boys”?

A written statement over the end titles of Beautiful Boy outlines the extent of American most recent drug epidemic, noting the millions of addicts who have died as a result. Indeed, the numbers are horrific, but for the most part they’re not people like the affluent middle class of this film. Those deaths are both a direct result of massive marketing efforts by the huge US pharmaceutical industry pushing the legal opioids; and as a response to pot legalisation – the cartel-based criminal industry’s diversification out of cannabis into harder, more addictive products. Marijuana supply itself is now increasingly in the hands of large listed corporations, which are presently having a Bitcoin-like boom on US (and Australian) stock markets. Many countries and states, including California where Beautiful Boy is set, have opted for legalisation and are incorporating the revenue that our drug use produces into their own state budgets – effectively banking on it continuing to rise. This is capitalism, pure and simple – there’s a product to be sold, money to be made, and legislators are falling into line. In the face of its relentless imperatives our tears are useless. Middle class parents are going to have a lot more “beautiful boys” to cry over in the years to come.

Ghost Stories

Three classically-made scary tales set in a dank and dark Britain which has rarely looked more dismal make up this anthology by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, who have adapted their own wildly successful stage play to the big screen to terrifying effect. There are jump scares aplenty but the real seat-squirming horror is in its deliberate slow pacing and gloomy atmospherics, something doubly impressive considering the film’s theatrical origins. There’s been a long rich history of spooky movies, and genuinely producing goosebumps is getting hard to do with audiences who have seen it all before. That Ghost Stories does so with consummate ease is quite an achievement.

Nyman himself plays Phillip Goodman, a professional debunker of psychic phenomena who runs a cheesy “gotcha” TV show exposing and debunking those who peddle paranormal hokum. Out of the blue he’s contacted by a once-famous fellow sceptic, George Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who vanished from view decades ago. They meet in a pokey, decrepit caravan on what looks like an abandoned campground on a bleak rainy English beach, and Goodman’s given a package with three case studies to investigate, ones that the older man says convinced him he’d been wrong all along to be a doubter. In the first, an intimidating prickly nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) with a tragic family history has a hideous experience while guarding a derelict building once used as an asylum for insane young women. In the second, a nervy, bullied young man (Alex Lawther) becomes stranded in a dark, deep forest after a hit-and-run incident with a demonic beast. The third involves a smug, wealthy smug banker (Martin Freeman), whose cold, soulless mansion is terrorised by a poltergeist just as his wife is having a baby. Then Dyson and Nyman go one step further, delivering a devastating fourth act which ties everything together in one of those clever twists that’ll have you wishing you could instantly press the rewind button to pick apart the threads and clues.

The three stories all contain first class acting and make fantastic use of locations which all look bleakly unchanged since the UK recession of the seventies. It’s a land of rain-swept empty streets, unattractive pubs and dark falling apart buildings –  one riven with snarling class division, ugly snobbery and vile prejudice. It’s the Britain before European integration and mass immigration, the nostalgic Olde England the Brexiteers apparently want to return to. If that’s “the green and pleasant land” of their dreams, they can have it. M from Oct 25 at Dendy Newtown ★★★★

Book Week

Nick Cutler (Alan Dukes) is a rumpled, cynical and usually drunk writer with one solitary novel a long time behind him – but now reduced to wearily teaching English in an outer suburban high school in Heath Davis’ new low-budget local feature. Davis claims it’s inspired by his own experience, poor thing. Though largely a disreputable, lecherous boor who shows neither writing talent or a single drop of charisma, there’s some suggestion that other characters see something in Nick, and clearly we’re supposed to too. One 20-ish, attractive and lovely woman for example falls into bed with him on sight, as anyone would with a 40-ish grizzled alcoholic with an unkempt beard and a bad attitude they’ve just meet at the pub… She (Airlee Dodds) later turns up at his school as a trainee, and teachers familiar with the frustrations of their job may get a few smiles from the staffroom goings on. However they certainly won’t like the cliched way their profession is besmirched.

It’s a hard slog for the rest of us too. In a ideal world (one with Hollywood budgets, pre-release audience testing and subsequent re-writes), Nick would be played by someone like Ethan Hawke or Chris O’Dowd, and his character would have included at least some redeeming features. As it is Dukes tries his best but he’s stranded with this role – as a piss-weak, gormless loser whose behaviour towards everyone – but mostly the woman, all of them much younger – is far from “amusing” and actually verges on the despicable. When towards the end he stands on a Blue Mountains clifftop in despair at the way things have turned out for him, I just wished he would jump off. CTC from Oct 25. Local cinemas include Hoyts Entertainment Quarter 1/2

Also opening this week

Halloween and Hunter Killer, both unpreviewed.

Reviews – Russell Edwards