Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

Feb 26

“Antwone Fisher”: Hard-Won Therapy Success

The message is old-fashioned and unironic: With determination and support, a person can overcome adversity…
(That the doctor has his own communication problems with his wife is a nice, if overemphatic, shrinks-are-human touch.) Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, about Antwone Fisher

Declared one of the top 10 of its year by the American Film Institute, the award-winning therapy-driven Antwone Fisher (2002) was directed by Denzel Washington and written for the screen by Fisher himself.

Finding Fish: A Memoir, by Fisher and Mim E. Rivas, had come out the year before. Publishers Weekly: “An unflinching look at the adverse effects foster care can have on a child’s life, this stunning autobiography rises above the pack of success fables from survivors of America’s inner cities.”

The crux of the film, which as usual takes a few liberties with the true story, is Fisher’s (Derek Luke) relationship with his Navy psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (played by Washington). (Now a major star, Viola Davis has a small but powerful role too.)

Stephen Holden, New York Times, summarizes this “movie so profoundly in touch with its own feelings that it transcends its formulaic tics”:

[Luke] has the challenge of conveying the seesawing moods of a bright, angry young man scarred by childhood rejection and abuse, whose streak of hotheadedness threatens to get him bounced out of the Navy. Juggling his hurt and fear, with a ferocious desire to face down his demons, Antwone is a sensitive artist (he writes poetry and draws) who, given the chance, lunges headlong after the self-knowledge that will help him deal with that hurt. As the film follows Antwone’s efforts to break through his own defensive shell, it raises issues that cut beneath conventional therapeutic wisdom about child abuse and its repercussions…

The trailer’s below:

FISHER’S THERAPY

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “Naval regulations require them to have three sessions of therapy, and the first session doesn’t start until Antwone talks. So week after week, Antwone sits there while the doctor does paperwork, until finally they have a conversation…”

Stephen Holden, New York Times, on points made about the lingering effects of slavery:

Early in Antwone’s therapy the doctor gives him John W. Blassingame’s book ‘The Slave Community,’ which theorizes that the harsh discipline Antwone (like countless children like him) endured as a foster child growing up in Cleveland was an internalized reflection of the abuse his ancestors suffered at the hands of slave owners. Those slave owners, it suggests, loomed as punishing surrogate parents, wielding far more authority than the slaves’ own biological parents.

To any child, the behavior of an ultimate authority figure, no matter how oppressive, tends to define how that child wields parental power later in life. According to the theory, that pattern of instilled self-loathing established in the days of slavery has been passed down from generation to generation.

After Fisher opens up somewhat, Davenport allows the therapy structure to loosen; one example is that he invites Fisher to his home for dinner. According to Cinematherapy.com, in the context of the particular circumstances most of the relaxed boundaries serve a therapeutic purpose. Some are iffier, however, e.g., Davenport not always honoring confidentiality.

HARD-WON OUTCOMES

In addition to a meaningful romance Fisher’s able to develop with Cheryl (Joy Bryant), another sailor, there’s also a major turning point near the end of the film. Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com:

Davenport argues with the young man that all of his troubles come down to a need to deal with his past. He needs to return to Ohio and see if he can find family members. He needs closure…

Without detailing what happens, I will mention three striking performances from this part of the movie, by Vernee Watson-Johnson as Antwone’s aunt, by Earl Billings as his uncle, and by Viola Davis as his mother…

Holden’s conclusion aptly compares the therapy of Antwone Fisher to that of Good Will Hunting (1997):

Where ‘Good Will Hunting’ implied that one good cry could work a psychological miracle, ‘Antwone Fisher’ acknowledges that such a cry is just the first of many on a long, bumpy emotional road. If the movie’s sugar-coated ending leaves a hint of saccharine, its beautifully balanced performances and faith in its characters keep it honest despite itself.

Mar 27

Getting Rid of Anger: Venting It Out As a Solution Is Myth

One of the best things I’ve ever read about getting rid of anger is Carol Tavris‘s 1983 Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. Although at the time of its release I hadn’t yet been practicing therapy all that long, I’d already been suspecting that popularized theories about cathartic exercises such as beating on pillows and “getting it out” were not particularly helpful in the longer-term—maybe not even in the shorter-term.

Tavris’s book was considered controversial at the time, but her extensive research supported my own biases. ”Talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce it, it rehearses it,” she said. “People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.”

What did she find to be more useful for getting rid of anger? Anatole Broyard, The New York Times, summarized some of her suggestions: “We can analyze and understand our anger; we can express it and go beyond it; we can use it, instead of letting it use us. As a last resort, we can, like the Papuans of New Guinea, do ‘a mad dance,’ a solution that quite a few of us are already practicing.”

Jane E. Brody, in her New York Times review, added another important piece: “Dr. Tavris does not believe anger should never be expressed. Rather, she limits the circumstances to those that satisfy three conditions: when anger represents a legitimate plea for justice, when it is directed at someone who is the cause of the anger and when it would result in a correction of the offense or, at the very least, would not cause retaliation. Otherwise, she suggests counting to 10.”

Despite the evidence, however, a belief still persists that anger is best handled via some kind of dramatic venting. As recently as 2009, in their bestseller 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein listed “It’s Better to Express Anger Than to Hold It In” as Myth #2. (Number 1? “We Only Use 10% of our Brains.”)

Why is this myth so popular? In all likelihood, people often mistakenly attribute the fact that they feel better after they express anger to catharsis, rather than to the fact that anger usually subsides on its own after awhile (Lohr, Olatunji, Baumeister, & Bushman, 2007).

Noted anger researcher, Brad Bushman, also debunks this catharsis theory. From a recent Psychology Today post: “Venting is just practicing how to behave more aggressively, such as by hitting, kicking, screaming, and shouting.” One might feel good afterward, but it’s not likely to change the way you feel overall.

Even physical exercise, he says, isn’t helpful. “The reason physical exercise doesn’t work is that it increases rather than decreases physiological arousal, such as heart rate and blood pressure. When people become angry, their physiological arousal increases. (It is possible, however, that prolonged exercise will eventually reduce anger, if it continues until the person is extremely tired—because then the arousal is finally dispersed and people feel too exhausted to aggress.)”

Bushman endorses for getting rid of anger such things as relaxing, counting to 10, reframing the problem or conflict, distraction, and detachment as ways to get rid of anger. Certain other actions can also do the trick—he suggests, for example, “petting a puppy, watching a comedy, making love, or performing a good deed…because those acts are incompatible with anger and therefore they make the angry state impossible to sustain.”

Steven Stosny, PhD, who regularly addresses anger management in his clinical work, has come up with the “Ten Commandments of Managing Anger” (Psychology Today):

1. Recognize anger as a signal of vulnerability – you feel devalued in some way.

2. When angry, think or do something that will make you feel more valuable, i.e., worthy of appreciation.

3. Don’t trust your judgment when angry. Anger magnifies and amplifies only the negative aspects of an issue, distorting realistic appraisal.

4. Try to see the complexity of the issue. Anger requires narrow and rigid focus that ignores or oversimplifies context.

5. Strive to understand other people’s perspectives. When angry you assume the worst or outright demonize the object of your anger.

6. Don’t justify your anger. Instead, consider whether it will help you act in your long-term best interest.

7. Know your physical and mental resources. Anger is more likely to occur when tired, hungry, sick, confused, anxious, preoccupied, distracted, or overwhelmed.

8. Focus on improving and repairing rather than blaming. It’s hard to stay angry without blaming and it’s harder to blame when focused on repairing and improving.

9. When angry, remember your deepest values. Anger is about devaluing others, which is probably inconsistent with your deepest values.

10. Know that your temporary state of anger has prepared you to fight when you really need to learn more, solve a problem, or, if it involves a loved one, be more compassionate.

Want to try a simple test to see how well you deal with anger? Psychology Today offers an abridged (5-minute) anger management test at this link.

Nov 30

Silver Linings Therapy Playbook: Mental Health in Novel and Film

I’ve never read Matthew Quick‘s debut novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, now adapted by David O. Russell for the screen. But I have now seen the filmSome further thoughts and reviews regarding the portrayal of both mental illness and therapy in both genres follow.

The Silver Linings Playbook: The Novel

A former teacher who successfully hid his severe depression from his students, author Quick knows a thing or two about mental disorders. He recently told Steven Rea, Philly.com, “I still deal with anxiety and depression issues, but the writing is a form of therapy for me.”

The form of therapy for main character Pat, whose diagnosis apparently isn’t made clear, occurs after he’s discharged from several years of long-term treatment at the psych hospital, otherwise known as “the bad place.” According to Nancy Pearl‘s review at nextreads.com, outpatient shrink Dr. Patel is “eccentric (but effective).”

As part of the publisher’s own intro to the book, however, said effectiveness is called into question: “…his new therapist seems to be recommending adultery as a form of therapy.”

Courtney Zehnder, in reviewing Silver Linings Playbook on the site of the Institute for Personal Growth, indicates that the use of therapy and medication becomes a helpful agent of change for Pat but that “…his relationship with his therapist may not be the most realistic portrayal…”

Silver Linings Playbook: The Movie

What kind of mental health issues are shown? First, Pat, who in the film spends less than one year as an inpatient, now does have a diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Others around him exhibit different types of overt issues. Grief, OCD, codependency, and sports mania are just a few that inhabit family members and friends.

It turns out that director/screenwriter Russell was interested in adapting the novel because his son has struggled with “bipolarity and other matters,” reports Hillary Weston at blackbookmag.com. She adds that, in her estimation, Silver Linings Playbook:

…does a beautiful job of subtly portraying the point in illness, treatment, and recovery when one has the clarity and consciousness to recognize his or her behavior and faults but still does not have the power to control them and the shame, guilt, and self-hatred that comes along with it.

Did I think the issues were in fact portrayed realistically? Well, they didn’t seem unrealistic. At the very least, I didn’t come away thinking, That was bullshit.

The critics are somewhat divided on this question, though.

Stephen Whittynj.com, is one who points out that realism isn’t necessarily even germane: “…(T)his isn’t just a collection of oddballs (nor meant to be a serious study of mental illness).” And he adds:” It’s really a story about getting past your anger.” Which just may be what makes the movie relatable to all kinds of people regardless of one’s personal experience with mental illness—everyone knows something about anger.

Similarly, the AVClub review takes into account the film’s mainstream essence. It’s:

…the perfect material for Russell, who not only deals perceptively with the dizzying swings of manic depression, but makes it the fabric of a big, generous, happy-making ensemble comedy…

There’s real-crazy and there’s movie-crazy, and Russell gets what he needs from the former (which is really hard to resolve) in order to settle on the latter (which is really easy to resolve)—ultimately, mental illness serves as the vehicle that gets these two quirky characters to the crowd-pleasing place the film needs them to go.

Lou Lumenick, New York Post, doesn’t agree:

I must confess a relatively low tolerance for movies that romanticize, much less trivialize, serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder — which here is laughed off as a somewhat charming quirk that’s easily managed with medication. But that’s probably to be expected from a director like Russell, who has famous real-life issues with anger management.

Claudia Puig, USA Today, too has her doubts: “Serious mental illness is not portrayed with full authenticity here, yet Russell’s script, based on Matthew Quick’s novel Playbook, captures a range of eccentricity with comic finesse.”

How about the ending? Irene S. Levine, Life Goes Strong, comes down hard on it in what may be a broadly drawn spoiler, so please consider this when deciding whether to read ahead:

In terms of promoting mental health awareness, the last third of the movie was disappointing. Much like A Beautiful Mind, the ending of Silver Linings Playbook implies that love can transcend mental illness. This is where the movie does a disservice to its audience and oversimplifies the complexity of mental illness and the path to recovery. But the contrived happy ending does allow the audience to leave the theater feeling good and, perhaps, in the mood to talk about the real challenges posed by serious mental disorders.

End of spoiler alert. For now it’s safe to read on…

And what about Pat’s therapist? As it turns out, there’s very little of him in the film. Anupam Kher, the actor who plays Patel, notes in Bollyspice.com that his character actually joins the others in being “dysfunctional,” however. You don’t know that right away—not until the end, he says.

I beg to differ.

Possible spoiler coming: Pat’s (and the audience’s) very first meeting of Patel immediately follows Pat’s violent response to hearing “My Cherie Amour” in the not-private waiting room. Pat confronts Patel about allowing to be played what is in fact his personal known-to-be-rage-triggering song, and the not-sensible, not-wise shrink admits he purposely did it in order to “test” him.

Not cool, in my humble clinical opinion.

You can read this: Whereas on the more positive side, Dr. Patel does continually encourage Pat to make healthier choices…

Final spoiler alert, sparing you many of the details: …Patel’s not the best at his own choices. The eventual “dysfunctional” twist regarding this doc occurs outside the therapy office and is just one more in a never-ending string of movie depictions of unacceptable therapist boundaries that are never explained to the audience as such.

Jul 03

“Anger Management” the TV Show: Managing My Anger About It

According to IMDB, Charlie Sheen‘s new series on FX, Anger Management, is “(a) TV sitcom-version of the 2003 feature film about a guy sentenced to anger management counseling with an aggressive instructor.” It premiered last week with the episode “Charlie Goes Back to Therapy,” and, as expected, it drew tons of viewers.

In brief, his character, Charlie Goodson, is a former baseball player with anger management issues who’s now an anger management therapist—with—guess what—continuing anger management issues.

Because there’s a group therapy focus, many reviewers have compared Sheen’s show to someone else’s from way back when.

Variety: “‘The Bob Newhart Show’ with more sex jokes…”

Washington Times: “Goodson has a 15-year-old daughter he adores, a sassy ex-wife he lets push his buttons, and, in addition to the paying members of his therapy group (shades of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’), he also volunteers at a penitentiary to work with cartoonish hardened inmates.”

Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly:

The locus of most of this show’s comedy…is the therapy sessions Charlie conducts. Watching him referee a group of recalcitrants and oddballs, you recognize the true template for this series: The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), with its bemused therapist surrounded by his wacky clientele.

But they’re not as vividly drawn as Newhart’s patients; you’ll find no equivalent to, for example, Jack Riley’s intriguingly furtive, insecure misanthrope Elliot Carlin.

Instead, the troubled souls in Anger Management are all less pleasingly complicated types, familiar to sitcoms current and past: the cranky old man (Northern Exposure’s Barry Corbin), the sarcastic gay man (Michael Arden), the sexpot (Noureen Dewulf), and a dope (Derek Richardson) who likes goading other people. Charlie also has a second group of patients – a group of prison inmates he counsels – but that’s a tonally strange, unfunny subplot that will either have to be dropped or drastically overhauled, since its humor in the first two episodes involve awkward jokes about murder, gay sex, or rape.

And it just gets worse. States a Chicago Tribune reviewer: “The funniest riffs come from perhaps the most contrived plot point. Charlie is best friends with fellow therapist Kate (Selma Blair), whom he is also having sex with. And in the pilot, they become each other’s therapists, putting off the physical relationship for about 30 seconds before getting frisky on her office chair.”

What the…?! They become each other’s therapists?! Where do I begin…???? The ethics against having sex with a client? The inability of a colleague-who’s-also-a-best-friend to be an objective-enough therapist? The no-way-can-your-client-also-be-your-shrink and no-way-can-your-shrink-also-be-your-client?

Apparently, here’s how this all develops: First, there’s Charlie’s realization that he needs his own therapy because of his still-unresolved anger stuff. The Washington Times:

‘Why do you need a therapist? You are a therapist,’ his neighbor asks.

Goodson responds this way: ‘Did you ever see a tow truck hauling a tow truck?’

Of course, Charlie being Charlie, there’s a problem.

‘There’s only one tow truck I trust,’ he sighs, ‘and unfortunately, I’m having sex with it.’

How ridiculous. A therapist actually believes he needs to have a developed and trusting relationship with his shrink before he starts therapy? !

Virginia Rohan, www.northjersey.com, adds that when Charlie’s neighbor then asks why this is problematic, he replies, “It’s unethical for a therapist to have sex with a patient. They teach that Day One. It weeds out half the class.”

Ha ha. Good riddance to them. Charlie, it’s not too late for you to weed yourself out.

David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun, who finds the show amusing, parenthetically notes:

(Memo to therapists: Save the emails about patients and therapists sleeping together. I didn’t say the series was enlightened. I wouldn’t go near Charlie or her if I wanted real-life therapy. But this is sitcom, remember?)

Yes. Yes, we do remember. But we’re sick and tired of it anyway, and we’re not gonna take it anymore! There are actually plenty other ways to make fun of therapy and therapists than to continually give the public the completely wrong impression that therapists may have sexual relationships with their clients.

“What would Dr. Melfi say?” This is asked by Mark Perigard of the Boston Herald, and it shows me that at least one critic is uncertain about Charlie’s doings. (Dr. Melfi was the shrink on The Sopranos.)

Better yet, Jace Lacob at The Daily Beast points out that Kate: “…willingly throws away her professionalism and morality to continue to have sex with Charlie, even as she ‘treats’ him. She’s said to be brilliant, but we’re shown no examples of her intelligence, just her sex drive.”

And, refreshingly, David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, also aptly sums things up: “Two things are relatively safe bets about the new sitcom Anger Management…The ratings are likely to be strong, especially for the first few episodes, and Charlie Sheen probably won’t make the American Psychological Association’s short list to keynote its next convention.”

Thank you, guys. Thank you for your support. I feel a little better already.