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Broken Trail (2006– )
10/10
Alcoholism-driven depravity
11 June 2010
AMC's first full-length original motion picture was deservedly the most-watched program in the network's history. Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) and Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church), Print's nephew, were two horse wranglers driving a herd of 400 mustangs across wild country with gorgeous backdrops from Oregon to Wyoming in 1898.

The obstacle the two cowboys faced during their journey was in having to free and then protect five Chinese women from their kidnapper, who was selling them into prostitution. While the kidnapper was an obvious and vile alcoholic, not one reviewer, professional or otherwise, mentioned alcoholic egomania as the driver behind the iniquity; only that good, honest and honorable men saved the day. Yet, without alcoholism, such monsters would be few and far between and there would likely have been nothing to save the women from. Therefore, the story is rooted in the alcoholism-driven need to wield power in a particularly cruel way and, perhaps perversely, in the idea that non-alcoholics would never have had the opportunity to prove their mettle without alcoholism in the antagonist.

"Broken Trail" is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is well-written and gives an excellent taste of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong—-of non-addict virtue vs. alcoholism-fueled depravity.
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Alpha Dog (2006)
7/10
superb portrayal of adolescent poly-drug addicts
25 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
One critic described "Alpha Dog," Nick Cassavetes' thinly disguised story of the murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz for which Jesse James Hollywood is on trial, as a "glossy yet unflinching portrait of violent, hedonistic teenagers." Johnny Truelove's (Jesse James Hollywood's) chain-smoking father Sonny (played by Bruce Willis) suggested "it's all about parenting," which is what Cassavetes suggested in several interviews. These are typical takes on a film that is, at its core, really about adolescent poly-drug addiction.

The film is, at first, very difficult to watch. It's filled to the brim with profanities, tattoos, boozing, drugging, violence, screaming, reckless driving and addicts' confabulations. In other words, it accurately portrays the behaviors of adolescent polydrug addicts.

The codependent (and probably alcoholic) parents are crazed, yet continue to enable. The older son, Jake Mazursky (Ben Markowitz in real life, played by Ben Foster), is the most vile out-of-control methamphetamine addict we've seen since "Salton Sea" (starring the great Vincent D'Onofrio). But the story mellows a bit, particularly as we get to know the younger Zack Mazursky (victim-in-real-life Nicholas Markowitz, played by a wonderful Anton Yelchin), who becomes complicit in naïve fashion in his own abduction. Zack is too endearing and cute to be savagely murdered, even if he seems quite happy to have a taste of the addicts' decadent lifestyles in the largely party-like atmosphere. (Although he seems to regard his older brother with, as one critic put it, both admiration and envy, the film makes it appear that this was his only foray into drug use. I have it on good authority that he was already a dope-smoking, pill-taking several-times runaway, so we can assume the movie took some literary license to tone down the dramatic effect, thereby making it more palatable for the rest of us.) The bond that develops between Zack and Frankie (one of Truelove's addict friends, played by a surprisingly good Justin Timberlake) also helps to tone the movie down just enough for this reviewer to be able to give it an almost eight stars out of ten (so I feel compelled here to give it seven).

But it's not about lousy parenting, even if non-addicted parents might intervene before tragedy happens. Nor is it, as another critic said, heavy-panting exploitation of the crime, since reporting the tragic results of addiction help to protect the rest of us, if only we would learn. Another critic suggested that Cassavetes' suggestion that it's about lousy parenting is "rot," instead claiming it's about "the pleasure of watching beautiful bodies at rest and in motion. It's about the allure of youth, the erotics of violence and the inevitable comeuppance that must always be meted out whenever youth strays too far from the fold…." As he put it, what rot. The sober among us do not think it alluring or erotic. It's about the tragedies that can occur when addiction isn't properly dealt with. The comeuppance all-too-often comes too late.
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3/10
Fatally flawed ending
25 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of an out-of-control early-stage alcoholic/other-drug addict is decent in terms of behaviors. In classic fashion, she blames everyone else for all her problems, is completely irresponsible and turns on a dime against those who are out of favor (her doting dad, for example).

The portrayal of enabling isn't bad either. Good boy falls in love with exciting addict. However, in the real world he would have enabled her to her grave. In the absence of the boyfriend, her completely unaware father would have insured she died from her disease. The key problem with the ending--which ruins the movie for the addiction-aware--is that she doesn't die OR get sober. In terms of pure fantasy, the movie ranks with "The Thin Man" series, in which caring, considerate and competent alcoholic PI Nick Charles is never nasty--yeah, right--and "Lost Weekend," in which writer Don Birnam easily gets sober at the end. Sorry, that just doesn't happen.

While the movie clearly shows that an excellent upbringing is no impediment to alcoholism, it implies that poor behaviors cause alcoholic drinking. As I have written in four books on the subject and repeatedly point out in my free on-line addiction report, this is one of the great myths of addiction that serves only to perpetuate the disease. The movie's ending can easily cause the uninitiated to believe that "love" and "working" with the addict gets her sober. Every recovering addict alive with at least five years' sobriety will admit that what got them sober was uncompromising tough love and that getting sober was essential for a return to civilized behaviors.

If the movie had shown Kirsten's character going into rehab and coming out clean, I might have rated the movie a five. But that would have required either dad or nice boyfriend setting proper boundaries and offering uncompromising tough love--in which case I might have rated the movie a seven. Sorry, but all those comments about "realistic portrayal," "slight substance abuse problem," "what teen doesn't drink?" and "the talk between dad and daughter at the end of the movie is utterly believable" are written by viewers who don't have a clue about addiction. And because of a fatally flawed ending, "Crazy/Beautiful" fails to shed light on the most destructive disease known to man.
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The Matador (2005)
4/10
Middle-to-late stage alcoholism gets the better of a hit man
28 June 2007
The movie is not so much about a globe-trotting hit man and crestfallen businessman as it is about a middle-stage alcoholic sinking into late stage hallucinations and his enabler. I suppose if I knew less about alcoholism than I do (I've authored four books on the subject, as well as an online addiction report) I might have enjoyed the movie more than I did. Alas, the portrayal of an alcoholic is too good and the alcoholism too obvious. I'm far more interested in movies about characters in whom the alcoholism is not readily identified, even if few if any reviewers here figured out that this movie was really, simply, a movie about an addict who happens to be a hit man and inflates his ego my killing people and sleeping with every woman he can.
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House M.D. (2004–2012)
10/10
The doctor's a brilliant addict
10 December 2006
Rude, condescending, sarcastic, belittling and brilliant.

If the combination of words that best describes someone has seemingly inherent contradictions, we need to look for addiction, however improbable it may at first seem. Since these terms are an apt description of Dr. Gregory House, the lead character on the show "House," the odds are if we are able to peer into the person's private life we'll prove addictive use.

I only recently discovered "House" in its third season. There is little on TV that brings thoughts such as "brilliant" or several belly laughs in almost every episode, but "House" manages. The tight and acerbic writing is comparable to that of the original "Law and Order" starring the late Jerry Orbach as Detective Lenny Briscoe. It, too, is one of the greatest series ever shown on the small screen. The culprit is a medical malady instead of a human one and Dr. House is a practicing pharmaceutical drug addict, while Briscoe was a recovering alcoholic.

Until recently, each episode of "House" was a stand-alone medical mystery. However, a new thread has been introduced, which heightens the interest for the addiction aware. House has supposedly been in chronic pain while gulping Vicodin like they're candy. He's nasty, mean-spirited and sarcastic to both staff and patients, which could be typical of an iNtuitive-Thinker M.D. addict. His nastiness was particularly pronounced while treating a detective named Michael Tritter (smartly played by David Morse). When Tritter realized that House was an addict, he decided to go after him.

The investigation of House's overuse of pain pills has begun and we've learned that House has forged prescriptions in order to load up as only an addict would. House tells Tritter that one of his subordinates, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), wrote the scripts, which Wilson confirms, as only a dutiful enabler would. Now that his drug supply is threatened, House is shown becoming suddenly more interested in keeping access to the drug than to the medical mystery at hand. And, he's ready and willing to sacrifice Wilson's medical practice. Will the addict get his due? Or will the enabler be the fall guy? It probably won't turn out the way it should in real life (the show would likely have to end), but we will at least be entertained and hopefully not too annoyed at the result.

"House" is strongly recommended for very good acting, excellent writing, an interesting mystery, some very clever if mean-spirited sarcasm and a unique look at the possible behaviors of an addicted iNtuitive Thinker in his position. Now, even better, it offers a view of several different people enabling for their own reasons, as well as how far an addict will go in destroying the lives of others to protect his perceived right to use.
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Men of Honor (2000)
9/10
An accurate and excellent portrayal of a typical highly-functional alcoholic, who serves as chief obstacle
11 July 2006
"Men of Honor" is an inspiring story about overcoming obstacles and steel-willed determination. It's also about one of those obstacles, alcoholism-fueled racism, from which redemption becomes possible. The result is one of the great unsung alcoholic movies.

Navy dive school instructor Master Chief Billy Sunday, played by Robert DeNiro in a role reminiscent of another alcoholic he played, Tobias Wolff's father in "This Boys' Life," is a typical highly functional alcoholic. Behavioral indications of alcoholism such as those mentioned in my book, How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: Using Behavioral Clues to Recognize Addiction in its Early Stages, are evident long before we see or hear about any actual addictive drinking. Early on, Sunday is magnificently abusive and likens himself to God. He's vile, filled with hatred and married to a woman half his age (one way by which some alcoholics inflate their egos: "Look at the babe I can catch.").

Carl Brashear, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., decides he wants to be a Navy diver, and nothing stops him—not even Sunday or his likely alcoholic boss, Capt. Mr. Pappy, played by Hal Holbrook. Against all odds, including the prejudice endemic to the time and the particularly virulent alcoholism-driven racism at the helm, Brashear succeeds in becoming the first Black Navy Master Diver.

Refreshingly, Sunday's alcoholism becomes apparent before the movie ends. After assaulting a superior officer at a function where he is obviously drunk, he is demoted to a position where he is less able to inflate his ego, causing him to slip into late-stage addiction. Sunday's wife Gwen, played by Charlize Theron, is the more obvious drunk but, in recognition of more destructive behaviors, complains about his drinking on their anniversary. He's finally forced into rehab and, while still somewhat cocky and undergoing ego deflation (it doesn't happen overnight), ends up paying a heartfelt amends to Brashear.

One review mentions alcoholism: "When his diving career is cut short, Sunday turns to drink" and ends up in rehab. More accurately, "When his diving career was cut short, Sunday could no longer effectively inflate his ego, resulting in a spiral down into more obvious late-stage alcoholism." Alcoholism is, in fact, the driving force behind the key obstacles Brashear encounters: men who have a need to wield capricious power. Fortunately, Brashear succeeds against all odds. It's a pleasure to recommend "Men of Honor" not only as an inspiring motion picture with great acting by great actors, but also one that accurately represents alcoholism, a very rare event.
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8/10
Fear and Loathing in the Mind of an Addict
23 June 2006
A "wild outlaw with a pen," the rules were definitely not made for Hunter Thompson (the "rules are not for me" attitude, symptomatic of early- to middle-stage alcohol and other-drug addiction, is fully described in my book, "How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: Using Behavioral Clues to Recognize Addiction in its Early Stages"). His 1971 semi-autobiographical story "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the book on which this movie was based, was proclaimed a masterpiece of "New Journalism." Yet, it portrayed drug-addled brains and outrageously destructive behaviors which, while not quite glorified, were not deeply criticized. In classic alcoholic style, he was termed eccentric and a "cult" figure, while sharing his nihilist views that life is absurd and the world has no meaning. He was successful because he put his feelings to paper apparently succinctly at a time when so many others of his ilk in the '70s who couldn't write held the same vacuous beliefs. He wrote nonsense very well indeed, reportedly never wasting a word.

The story portrays two druggies in grown-up bodies with the minds of, at best, the fraternity boys in "Animal House." Benicio Del Toro, who gained 40 pounds for the role, beautifully plays gun- and knife-toting lawyer Dr. Gonzo. Gonzo accompanies seemingly cogent chain-smoking journalist Raoul Duke (Thompson's alter-ego, which served as the model for the thinly disguised sleazy "Uncle Duke" in the Doonesbury comic strip), played by Johnny Depp, to report on the 1971 Mint 400 Desert Race and a District Attorney Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, both held in Las Vegas. While the movie clearly does not glorify the use, it leaves us bewildered over the incredible luck in failing to get busted for destroying hotel rooms and endangering others on the road as they drive to and around Las Vegas with a suitcase full of every drug imaginable while stoned out of their minds. Snorting coke during speeches at the D. A. Conference, they haven't a clue as to what's going on. Nothing gets written on either event for Duke's employer.

The movie was billed as one about two guys who find that "sometimes going too far is the only way to go." No it's not. It's about two addicts on a binge who destroy cars and hotel rooms, steal room service (averaging $35 per hour for 48 hours in 1971 dollars), and adversely affect more than a life or two. While there was no real message to the movie other than "it's the only way to go" for those who enable such behaviors and "disgusting" for those of us who don't, there were at least a few laugh-out-loud moments (but then, I have to admit to having a bit of a taste for ridiculous Leslie Nielson movies and, even, "Animal House").

More importantly, although you'd have to listen very carefully to notice, inflated egos, the central clue to early- and middle-stage substance addiction, were evident. As he's readying himself to cover the race, journalist Duke comments, "Those of us who had been up all night were in no mood for coffee and donuts; we wanted strong drink. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press." While cruising the Strip and thinking of themselves, he says, "Stoned, Ripped. Good people." After running into a beauty in an elevator (played in a cameo by Cameron Diaz) and threatening her boyfriend with a knife, Del Toro's character tells Duke, "She fell in love with me, man; eye contact, man," claiming she was flirting. While the first two comments may have been sarcastic, the latter was a clear sign of euphoric recall, which causes the addict to view everything he says or does in a self-favoring light (which, as I explain in my book "Drunks, Drugs & Debits: How to Recognize Addicts and Avoid Financial Abuse," leads to the massive ego-inflation of the typical early-stage addict).

They also consistently display a "rules don't apply to me" attitude. I explain in "Get Out of the Way! How to Identify and Avoid a Driver Under the Influence," my book on detecting DUIs before they become tragically obvious, that parking wherever someone pleases is a telltale sign of alcoholism and likely DUI. They do exactly this as they arrive at a Debbie Reynolds show, which they are quickly thrown out of after talking their way in without paying (no doubt, using alcoholic charm, which I discuss at length in my other books). And one astute point is made when Duke talks about leaving, with Gonzo wielding his hunting knife: "One of the things you learn after years of dealing with drug people is that you can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug. Especially when it's waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eye." Note his use of the term "it," suggesting that even Thompson, in a rare moment of total honesty, knew he was dealing not with a real person but, instead, with an addict, and that the problem is not the person or the drug, but rather the person on the drug.

The movie was directed by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam ("Life of Brian") and was billed as a comedy. While for the addiction-aware it's more of a tragi-comedy with a decent-enough portrayal of poly-drug addicts, I must admit to laughing out loud at several scenes, particularly the check-in scene at the hotel where Depp's character is hallucinating. In addition to Diaz's cameo, Gary Busey plays an enabling cop, and you will also find Tobey Maguire and Chris Meloni of "Law and Order: SVU," in amusing cameo roles.
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5/10
Does anger cause alcoholism, or does alcoholism cause anger?
23 June 2006
Reviewers describe Joan Allen's character Terry Wolfmeyer in "The Upside of Anger" as "furious," "rage fueled" and a "control freak." They also call her a "lush" and one stewing "in a home brew of bile and vodka." Although not as anger-fueled as many alcoholics (though snappy, nasty and sardonic, there's little outright screaming), for once the reviewers get it partly right. However, they don't seem to grasp cause and effect in attributing the behaviors to alcoholism. Nor does the movie itself, with the narration describing her as the nicest person anyone ever knew until anger turned her into a sad and bitter woman. The role of alcoholism in causing anger is not made clear; in fact, the uninitiated could easily conclude that the anger caused her drinking. It does not, and is one of many myths debunked in my book, "Alcoholism Myths and Realities: Removing the Stigma of Society's Most Destructive Disease." Terry suspects her husband has run off to Sweden with his secretary. We are to believe this is the cause of her heavy drinking and nasty behaviors. However, when she's trying to get her daughters off to school quickly (so she can have drinking buddy and sometimes boyfriend Denny Davies over for a little sex) by making them lunch, one says, "You haven't done that in years." When another daughter becomes seriously ill and is hospitalized, she tells her mother, "You don't seem to care all that much about me, unless like now, when I'm sick...You need to pay more attention to me." These two scenes suggest years of psychological abandonment in favor of the bottle.

The movie otherwise ignores the behaviors of early-stage alcoholism, leading to what is now a more obvious beginning of late-stage alcoholism. She pauses after pulling two bottles from a shelf at the market, yet still grabs a third. On the road, she flips off neighbors asking her to slow down. When one of her daughters asks if she's OK, she responds, "No. I'm a wreck." She describes her husband as "a vile, selfish pig. But I'm not going to trash him to you girls." Shocked that her eldest daughter is pregnant and marrying, upon meeting the groom's parents at a luncheon she says, "I need a Bloody Mary as soon as it's humanly possible," and quickly downs two. In a comment inconsistent with euphoric recall (addicts often remember their behaviors in a self-favoring light), she admits to Denny after the luncheon, "I made an ass of myself, like a public service film against drinking." Denny, played by Kevin Costner, is a has-been former "super sports" baseball hero relegated to selling autographed baseballs and hosting a sports radio talk show in which he talks about cooking and gives stock tips. While Terry is a foul-mouthed drunk, Denny gets stoned while drinking beer, but never acts nasty, in yet another inconsistent portrayal of a likely late-stage alcoholic. (It's even possible Denny isn't one; he could simply be a sometimes heavy drinker who occasionally smokes dope who is down on his luck.) Terry's bottom seems to occur when she sees her daughter near death in the hospital, after which she walks past the vodka in the market. Denny's producer Shep (played by the movie's writer-director Mike Binder) runs into her and says, "I should come over some night with a bottle and you and I should talk," to which she responds, "I'm not drinking." Shep is the likely undiagnosed alcoholic in the movie; he looks hung over in almost every scene and inflates his ego by seducing girls half his age (in my experience, few couples of widely disparate ages do not include at least one alcoholic).

The film's narration ends with the comment, "anger and resentment can stop you in your tracks...The only upside to anger is the person you become…anger, like growth, comes in spurts." The implication is that if she hadn't been so angry, she'd have discovered her husband's whereabouts more quickly, and she wouldn't have been angry. This is incorrect. She is an alcoholic; anger, especially in the latter stages, goes with the territory.
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Falling Down (1993)
7/10
Unexplained craziness - unless we assume alcoholism
23 June 2006
"Falling Down" is a very amusing black comedy, with Michael Douglas playing a recently fired defense worker known by his license plate moniker, D-FENS. Stuck in a monumental traffic jam, D-FENS angrily abandons his car and begins walking to his destination: his ex-wife's home, to give his little girl a birthday gift.

Along the way, he smashes up a Korean shopowner's store, stands up to gang members in a style we mere mortals have only dreamed, kills a Nazi, shoots up a phone booth and terrorizes employees and patrons at a fast-food restaurant. His ex-wife, played by Barbara Hershey, who knows he is coming over despite a restraining order, tells a cop she wants police protection. While he has never before become violent, he has "a horrendous temper" and she knows he might be capable of far worse. Still, in response to the cop's query (who at least knows enough to ask), she says he rarely drinks and doesn't use drugs. Yet, as with Anna Ayala, crazy, out-of-control behaviors are inexplicable unless we assume alcohol or other drug addiction.

One reviewer claims that the point of the movie is to make a statement about society and that we should stand up for ourselves, albeit in more constructive and non-violent ways. And while we should, only an alcoholic is likely to go over the top the way D-FENS does, even though he is mostly reacting to behavioral manifestations of addiction in others (for example, the gang members, almost 100% of whom are substance addicts of one stripe or another). While healthy people may harbor fantasies of doing crazy things in response to idiotic rules and the rude behaviors of others, the neo-cortex, the human part of the brain responsible for restraining the impulses of the lower brain centers, usually prevents them from being acted out. This is not the case for alcoholics, whose damaged neo-cortex exercises far more limited restraint, a differential biochemistry discussed at length in my book, "Myths and Realities of Alcoholism: Removing the Stigma of Society's Most Destructive Disease." Another reviewer blames the recession that resulted in his layoff (the early '90s was an era of massive layoffs in the defense industry, to which D-FENS had devoted his life), but a layoff alone cannot account for insanity. While some may ask whether the fault is his for allowing himself to be driven over the edge or society's for pushing him there, addictionologists know that the odds of unrestrained violence are remote without damage to the frontal lobes of the brain, the most common cause of which is alcoholism.

In my first of four books on the subject of alcohol and other-drug addiction, "Drunks, Drugs & Debits: How to Recognize Addicts and Avoid Financial Abuse," I discuss another dark comedy, "War of the Roses." This would have been one of the greatest alcoholic movies ever if it had portrayed either main character (one of whom happens to be played by Michael Douglas) as drinking heavily. While recovering addicts know that the movie has addiction written all over it, most non-addicts think it's just about a psychotic couple whose love inexplicably turns to hatred over the course of a 17-year marriage. Similarly, "Falling Down" portrays a man with behavioral indications of an out-of-control limbic system (the pre-human, emotional brain), the normal cause of which is alcoholism. If we assume he hid his addiction well (as many do, even from their spouses), the movie makes sense. Still, it's a good movie, combining an appeal to our visceral emotions with some very amusing scenes and, not least, Robert Duvall in a wonderful role as the endearing Detective Prendergast as the only law enforcer able to put two and two together.
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Modigliani (2004)
10/10
A classic tale of alcohol-induced tragedy
23 June 2006
"Do you know what love is? Real love? So deeply you'd condemn yourself to eternity in hell? I do and I have." So began Jeanne Hebuterne's narration of the story of her lover, artist Amedeo Modigliani. Few movies with obvious addicts at their center excite, but this one does - because of the ease with which we can relate to the codependent, Hebuterne (played endearingly by Elsa Zylberstein), who is drawn imperceptibly into the abyss. It's a classic tale of the seeming incomprehensibility of misbehaviors keeping close people off balance, making it easy to induce them to do things they would never in their right minds consider.

Initially, Modigliani (played by Andy Garcia in a terrific role) is outwardly eccentric, exciting and charming. The visceral appeal and seduction proves impossible for Hebuterne to resist and she falls in love with Modigliani almost at first sight. Happy though he may initially appear, he increasingly becomes consumed by remorse when able to see what the aftermath of his misbehaviors has wrought. When his contemporary Pablo Picasso asks after an encounter, "Why do you hate me so much?" Modigliani responds, "I love you Pablo. It is myself I hate." Alternating fighting with charm and insanity with excitement, self-derision becomes evident: he tells Hebuterne, "I have nothing for you. I am nothing." When she responds, "So you'll just run away?" he bluntly states, "That's what I do best." And so it goes, with Modigliani apparently growing to believe that irresponsible behaviors comprise his real self, which he loathes during moments of lucidity, while Hebuterne sees through to the real Modigliani, who is brilliant and, likely, caring without the drug.

Yet it isn't Hebuterne who tells him to stop drinking entirely; even Picasso suggests he "drink in moderation," which, as a person with alcoholism, he cannot do in the long run. It is Modigliani and Hebuterne's young son who tells him, "If you keep drinking, you'll kill us both." Although it seems an insightful observation for a child, other addiction experts (I say "other," because I've authored four books on the subject) have pointed out that child-victims see the potential for annihilation far more clearly than do others, including the spouse who is blinded by alcoholic charm and the decency they see underneath the muck of addiction. While Modigliani's binges are so apparent that everyone around him is aware of the problem, the cure - complete cessation - eludes.

His most destructive behaviors generally involve periodic abandonment of his wife and child for opium and booze. However, knowing we cannot predict how destructive an addict may become or when (one of the themes of my first book, "Drunks, Drugs & Debits: How to Recognize Addicts and Avoid Financial Abuse"), we should not be surprised when at one point Modigliani is put into a straitjacket. Nor should we be shocked when he shows up four days late to paint a portrait of a benefactor, although desperately in need of funds. Later, pleading for money so he can see a doctor, a friend asks him to promise he will not drink it away. Despite his doctor's admonition that if he continues to drink and smoke opium he will not live another year, his lungs already at half capacity due to having had tuberculosis as a child, his thirst for the drugs is insatiable. In typical alcoholic fashion, when told to stop drinking and to concentrate on painting, the egomaniac created by the alcoholism responds that no one can tell him what to do.

Some critics object that the movie is confusing, alternating back and forth in time with numerous flashbacks and what may be hallucinations; but this is analogous to the life of the alcoholic, who leads a confused Jekyll and Hyde existence. While Modigliani isn't violent toward his family, the psychological abandonment conveys the experience of many victims: verbal and emotional abuse does more damage and lasts far longer, perhaps because it's easier to leave physically and detach emotionally from a violent addict. This could explain the classically tragic end. Because alcoholism provides the most certain tragedy, tragedy makes good cinema and the conflicting effect on the codependent is, for once, accurately portrayed, this is one of the best of the overtly alcoholic genre.
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Walk the Line (2005)
9/10
One of the best portrayals ever of alcoholism
23 June 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"The darkness was responsible for his work, but also for dragging him down." So said co-writer and Director James Mangold in his commentary on the film biography of country singer legend Johnny Cash. "Walk the Line" is an excellent portrayal of alcoholism and the grand dichotomy largely responsible for the conflicts in the work and lives of Cash, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Burton, Jim Morrison and countless other remarkable achievers. The portrayal of Cash's father's alcoholism and abusive behaviors is superb as well in this on-screen acknowledgment of the genetic roots of a disease to which he succumbs.

Since the cinema and addicts (the screenplay is based on Cash's autobiography) can't be trusted to accurately report real-life events, there's no way to know whether there was heavy drinking before Cash's popping of amphetamines and barbiturates began. But as soon as it starts, his demeanor dramatically changes, which we see in Cash's facial expressions as portrayed by actor Joaquin Phoenix. He instantly begins illicit one-night stands with fans when on the road, while his wife Vivian stays home with their children. The drunken show of anger when he rips apart his dressing room after a scene with the woman he truly loves, fellow country star June Carter, is a classic by-product of his addiction which, as is true for addicts everywhere, serves as an excuse to pop more pills.

Carter, in an Oscar-winning performance by Reese Witherspoon, is the one person who is willing to draw the line, at least some of the time. In a vow to stop enabling after she sees Johnny and the boys in his band stinking drunk just hours before a performance, Carter says she will no longer be the Dutch boy with the finger in the dam. While she enables by beginning an affair with Cash after her divorce, she finally realizes what must be done and flushes his pharmacy down the toilet. Panicking, he cries that he needs the pills—they were prescribed. It's a scathing indictment of doctors, who all-too-frequently play pusher.

The view of alcoholism as a "family disease," the mal-effects on spouse and children, becomes apparent as his wife Vivian finally leaves him for good, children in tow. Self-inflicted financial abuse, as he tries to cash a $24,000 check in the 1960s, becomes apparent. Unfortunately, the film leaves to the viewer's imagination any financial victimization of others. (Financial abuse of both self and others by alcoholics is my specialty: I wrote a book on the subject, "Drunks, Drugs & Debits: How to Recognize Addicts and Avoid Financial Abuse.") The informal intervention that apparently inspired in Cash a need to seek sobriety started at Thanksgiving in his new home. Reacting to Cash's indifferent attitude and reckless behaviors, his father Ray (portrayed by Robert Patrick) implied that drug use was at the root of Cash's problems when he commented, "I quit drinkin' a long time ago." Indeed, Ray's attitude had improved, although probably not by as much as if his son wasn't an addict. The look in actor Joaquin Phoenix's eyes was as close to one of, "Maybe I'll try sobriety," as any ever expressed. Do watch how Carter's family protects Cash from his pusher after he has suffered through the pain of withdrawal. (Finally, the one thing they should protect him against!) With the drugs mostly out of his system, he begins to ask questions every addict in early recovery must deal with, including, "What have I done?" When he admits to having "hurt everybody I know…I'm nothing," Carter points out that God "is giving you a chance to make everything right." As is typical of addicts in recovery, he thinks he is fundamentally flawed. Cash's favorite film was "Frankenstein," because it was a story of someone made up of bad parts who tried to do good. "Frankenstein" was written by Mary Shelley, who may also have had the disease of alcoholism. Perpetuating this myth of addiction (myth # 60 in my book, "Alcoholism Myths and Realities: Removing the Stigma of Society's Most Destructive Disease") is the only serious flaw in an otherwise excellent movie. In case you're new to these concepts, the truth is that addicts are almost always fundamentally good people who act badly as a result of a particular biochemical reaction to the drug. My goal (I've authored four books on the subject) is to show how to identify addicts and assist them into recovery, before tragedy happens. June Carter just made it, even if Vivian and others did not.
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8/10
Ignores the role of alcoholism in creating this classic Jekyll and Hyde
8 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Although we can't be sure how much of the persona is real, Jamie Fox beautifully portrays Tookie Williams in this well-made film. Likewise, Lynn Whitfield plays the endearing journalist Barbara Becnel, who asks Tookie to provide information for her upcoming book on gang history. The roles, in the end, reverse, when Becnel realizes Tookie needs her help in delivering his message.

The flaw in the movie, as in so many that portray addicts, is the failure to link convoluted thinking and misbehaviors to alcohol and other drug addiction. Tookie explains he helped start the Crips to "protect the neighborhood." Responding to Becnel's comment that it was a criminal enterprise from the start, Tookie replies that the cops weren't protecting anyone. "Either I was going to be a victim or a victimizer." However, he failed to note that he'd been doing drugs since at least age 13, when he sniffed glue, and didn't co-found the Crips until he was 18. And like most other hard-drug addicts, he was probably an early-stage alcoholic from the start.

When Becnel asks, "How can you possibly justify shooting a man who looks just like you?" Williams responded, "At the core is an embedded sense of self-hate…you start to believe those…stereotypes…depicting that the majority of blacks are buffoons or functioning illiterates, promiscuous, violent, welfare recipients and criminals…You lash out at those individuals that fit those stereotypes…trying to obliterate those negative images." However, Tookie neglected to mention the alcohol and other drugs consumed in addictive quantities by most of those having such belief systems, including him in his prior life. Such drugs cause distortions of perception and memory in susceptible individuals, of which he is one. Nor did the movie forge the link between his sobriety and change of heart, which is crucial to understanding the man.

He was too out-of-control for his mother, who took him to his father—whom he had never met—and who promptly abandoned him. While now eloquent and likable, he didn't remark on when he first used drugs—which may have been a period leading to his out-of-control behaviors.

Becnel put her history aside when Tookie told her, "I don't want to leave my legacy here as simply being the co-founder of the Crips, if I can keep a kid from coming to this place…" He tells her he wants to right his wrongs by writing children's books and shooting not people, but videos, in which he would apologize for his part in creating the Crips. "I deeply regret the legacy that it left because it left a legacy of genocide: black on black genocide." While making it clear that the course of violence must be reversed, he again ignores the role of alcoholism and other-drug addiction in creating the mindset that leads to the lion's share of abuse, including the ultimate crimes.

At one point, the film points out he stopped using when he decided to seek redemption. The link is blurred, but at least it's there. He stopped using, which allowed him to seek redemption; redemption is impossible while still using, because the active addict thinks he's God.

What the movie lacks in forging the link between addiction and misbehaviors, it makes up for in good acting and speeches of atonement. "We do good because it makes us feel alive. The first half of my life I was dead…but now the second half I get a chance to live and do something about it. And if I have to die in order to show the meaning—the true meaning of it—then so let it be." And, he points out the importance of self-responsibility in speeches to children: "This place (prison) does not make you a man. The moment you begin to make excuses for yourselves, that's the moment you get on to a pathway leading straight to here." And, "My violent gang past is unworthy of imitation or praise." He admits his greatest mistake ever was to co-found the Crips, while explaining that life is all about choices and that to assume there wasn't a choice is "just an excuse." However, he fails to point out that he never would have engaged in repetitive and horrific criminal behaviors if he hadn't inherited addiction, a common failure among addicts who all-too-often don't understand their own disease.

Nonetheless, it's a good movie about redemption. My understanding of alcoholism--on which I write extensively--has turned me into a strong believer in the idea of allowing addicts to do what they can to right their sometimes heinous wrongs, if they are willing. The movie portrays him as having made a very decent attempt, even if the wrong can never be fully righted.
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10/10
The role of alcoholism in this great movie
10 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of the greatest movies of all time. The story is one that answers the age-old question, "Why are we here?" by offering a tour of an alternate history of a world in which we were never born, in this case a visit to George Bailey's Bedford Falls without Bailey. Upon seeing the calamities befalling his town without his efforts at protecting the drunk pharmacist from filling a prescription with poison, saving his brother from drowning, and defending the town against the evil Mr. Potter, a humble George Bailey slowly begins to realize his own self worth. The observation by the tour guide, Angel Clarence, that "each man's life touches so many other lives" was a poignant precursor to the barely six degrees of separation we have between us.

For the alcoholism-aware, this movie may seem a bit confusing. Alcoholism appears in the very beginning, when Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, is shown drinking behind a door as 12-year old George comes to work. While young George merrily whistles away, Gower, who is so drunk he's almost slurring, yells, "You're not paid to be a canary," in classic nasty alcoholic style. But George shows understanding as he reads the text of a recently delivered telegraph bearing news that Gower's son has died of influenza.

Although Gower is a sympathetic drunk, death is just another excuse to drink for the alcoholic, while it is a time for sober reflection and mourning for the non-alcoholic. It is also a time when errors are more likely to occur. Gower slaps George's ears for failing to deliver a prescription, but shows genuine remorse when he realizes he had accidentally filled those particular pills with poison. But even an alcoholic might apologize to an employee for saving his hide. Gower's addiction becomes obvious when, in the alternate universe of a world without George Bailey, he is portrayed as a panhandling street drunk, having served 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

The real alcoholic story, however, is one unrecognized in the movie. Crusty old Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (ironically, one of many actors in the Barrymore family, which included a long line of alcoholics), is never once shown drinking. Yet he engages in power-seeking behaviors, doing anything to gain control over everything in Bedford Falls (which, in the alternate universe, becomes Pottersville, complete with sleazy bars, strip clubs and pawnbrokers). Conniving to keep $8,000 that was intended for George Bailey's building and loan company is just the culmination of a number of nefarious misbehaviors in which Potter engages. Because alcoholism best explains the conduct, the only flaw in this great movie is the omission of even one scene showing Potter drinking heavily, or one in which he might be shown hiding his stash. Perhaps such a scene ended up on the cutting room floor, edited out by a real-life alcoholic.
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10/10
Terrific portrayal of alcoholic betrayal and false accusation
29 August 2004
This movie has magnificent performances by Guy Pierce as Fernand Mandego and Jim Caviezel (Christ in 'The Passion of the Christ') playing Edmund Dantes, who later becomes the Count of Monte Cristo.

The story is billed as one of revenge. Yet the more important aspect is alcoholic egomania, taking form in betrayal and false accusations, embedded in a great movie. And it's timely: it fits right in with the Kobe Bryant trial. We cannot know the veracity of an alcoholic accuser, as appears to be the case in the Kobe trial as well as in Mandego.(I make additional comments about the relationship between the accuser in the Kobe trial and Mandego in an on-line newsletter; readers are welcome to write to me about this.)

As with Al Pacino's portrayal of Lt. Col. Frank Slade in 'Scent of a Woman,' most viewers didn't pay attention to or remember the alcoholism. Now it will seem obvious. From the beginning, when he says 'don't expect me to do this sober,' to an attempt to steal his best friend's girlfriend, to the Count's party, Mandego is seen drinking or bringing the bottle in ways suggestive of the idea that alcohol is a very important part of his life. While Mandego is portrayed as obviously inebriated only once, real-life alcoholic Henri Paul, Princess Diana's driver, didn't look drunk in the hotel video immediately prior to the tragedy, despite a blood alcohol level reported at .18 per cent (the equivalent of 12 shots of 80-proof liquor in 4 hours for a 200-pound person). Yet bodyguard Trevor-Rees Jones, who survived the crash, didn't even know Paul had been drinking. Early- to middle-stage alcoholics generally have extraordinarily high tolerance. This includes Mandego.

Behavioral symptoms of alcoholism include Dantes telling Mandego, 'Being your friend is always an adventure,' as they drink what appears to be wine (Dantes drinking non-alcoholically). Taking inordinate risks in an effort to inflate the alcoholic ego can lead to great adventure. When Mandego tries to steal away Dantes' long-time girlfriend, Mercedes, she reminds him of previous episodes and comments made by Mandego that appeared to have been rooted in envy. The alcoholic must always win, regardless of cost, which can include behaviors that make it appear as though he covets the loves and lives of others. Near the end of the story, Mandego admits to serial adultery, common in the lives of alcoholics. His compulsive gambling, for which there is a 50% probability of alcoholism, becomes obviously destructive. Falsely accusing his wife of being a whore, he leaves home with bottle in hand. While 'The Count of Monte Cristo' appears to portray an extreme version of alcoholic behavior, recovering alcoholics with ten or more years' sobriety admit to having been capable of 'anything' while using.

After 'Scent of a Woman,' this may be the greatest portrayal of alcoholism ever in a movie, providing a terrific example of the profoundly destructive effects of the disease, which can reverberate for decades. And, it combines adventure with a magnificent love story. Terrific movie.
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