Dec 16

“Collateral Beauty”: Misguided Grief Therapy

Loving support is offered to grief-stricken Howard (Will Smith) in Collateral Beauty, the star-packed film with the interesting title and trailer you were hoping was this year’s holiday heart-warmer. Think again, say most critics.

“Love, Time, Death. These three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death,” states Howard at the start of the trailer:

Plot development as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, Guardian:

This horrifyingly yucky, toxically cutesy ensemble dramedy creates a Chernobyl atmosphere of manipulative sentimentality, topped off with an ending which M Night Shyamalan might reject as too ridiculous. This isn’t Frank Capra. It is emotional literacy porn, like an aspirational self-help bestseller written by Keyser Söze. At the end of it, I screamed the way polar bears are supposed to when they get their tongues frozen to the ice.

Will Smith plays a super-brilliant ad exec with a Ted-talking visionary schtick about connectivity. But when he tragically loses his six-year-old to cancer, poor Will becomes a mumbling semi-crazy hermit who is in danger of running his company into the ground. He starts writing letters to abstract concepts like Death, Love and Time, to rail at them. So his sorrowing colleagues – Ed Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña – cook up a sneaky plan. They intercept the letters and hire three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, to go up to Will in the street and argue with him, pretending to be Death, Love and Time. (They could also have hired Jack Black to be Eat and Morgan Freeman to be Pray – but I guess there were copyright issues.)

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Even if it hadn’t come along so soon after Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s symphonic drama about a father emotionally crippled by loss, Collateral Beauty would look like silly high-concept Hollywood grief porn.

It’s a ludicrous plot device, right out of Gaslight, as Brigitte [Mirren] observes…

Good thing (?) Howard has his group therapy led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who’s also lost a child. Dan Callahan, The Wrap: “…Madeleine tells Howard about being at the hospital when an older woman turned to her to say that she must appreciate the ‘collateral beauty’ of her situation. Yes, Harris is actually made to say the ultra-lame title of this movie out loud — more than once — and she acts as if it is the most profound statement in the world.”

Peter Bradshaw, Guardian: Collateral beauty is “…like collateral damage only positive. Moments of loss are offset by revelations of human wonder at the resulting gestures of compassion and kindness. At least …I think that is how ‘collateral beauty’ is supposed to work because no-one in this movie spells it out – perhaps because doing so would reveal the concept to be dishonest nonsense.”

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush: “I still don’t know what ‘collateral beauty’ means.” Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “Forget ‘Collateral Beauty,’ whatever that means. This is ‘Collateral Schmaltz,’ the kind that has the power to close rather than open your heart as you rush out of the theater while the terribly named One Direction ballad, ‘Let’s Hurt Tonight,’ provides exit music.”

Leah Greenblatt, ew.com:  “These actors are too good to be entirely sunk by the sheer silliness of the material (with the exception of Smith, who seems fully committed to playing the role of a human frown-face emoji). But for all good Intentions, they can’t save a movie that so clearly wants to be something greater– It’s a Will-derful Life? Grief, Actually?—but mostly ends up a Collateral mess.”

May 22

“Mentally Strong”: Amy Morin’s Advice On Achieving This

Like physical strength, mental strength requires healthy habits, exercise, and hard work. Publisher, Amy Morin’s 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success

As a therapist Amy Morin has regularly witnessed the cultivation of mental strength in her clients’ lives. Notably, her related post called “13 Things That Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” appealed to so many readers it went viral. (The link will lead you to it, including her explanations—or scroll down to the end of this post for the main points.)

So last December Morin followed up with a book. In it she admits to some deeply affecting and challenging experiences of her own, e.g., the deaths of her mother, husband, and father-in-law in a relatively short period. In the video below, she explains further:

As the author states above, being mentally strong is not about putting on an act. In an article that originally appeared in Forbes, Morin outlines, in fact, “7 Key Differences Between Being Mentally Strong And Acting Tough“:

 1. Tough people believe failure is never an option. “Mentally strong people believe failure is part of the process toward a long journey to success.”

2. Self-portrayals of toughness mask insecurities. “Mentally strong people invest more energy into working on their weaknesses, rather than trying to cover them up.”

3. Tough people say, “I can do anything.” “Mental strength is about recognizing shortcomings and acknowledging the hard work needed to reach a goal.”

4. Acting tough involves pride. “Strong people are willing to ask others for help and they don’t need to be completely self-reliant.”

5. Tough people suppress emotions. “Being strong requires acute awareness of emotions and how those feelings can influence thoughts and behavior.”

6. Tough people thrive on power. “Mentally strong people focus their energy on being in control of their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, rather than always trying to control external circumstances and people.”

7. Acting tough is about tolerating pain. “Mentally strong people don’t just tolerate pain – they learn from it.”

More recently Morin shared with Kathy Caprino, Huffington Post, “the five most critical strategies of the 13 that help people stay mentally strong.” Click on the link for details.

1. Exchanging self-pity for gratitude

2. Focusing on what I could control

3. Living in the present 

4. Retaining my personal power

5. Embracing change

All 13 “things mentally strong people don’t do”:

1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves

2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power

3. They Don’t Shy Away from Change

4. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control

5. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone

6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks

7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past

8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over

9. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success

10. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure

11. They Don’t Fear Alone Time

12. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything

13. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results

Jan 16

“Still Alice”: Julianne Moore with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Alice is too young to assume that a momentary lapse might be an early sign of dementia. And then, over the length of a single devastating close-up, Alice learns that the rest of her life will be devoted to what she later refers to as ‘the art of losing.” David Ehrlich, Time Out, about Still Alice

Last Sunday Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe for her lead performance in Still Alice, the new film based on neuroscientist Lisa Genova‘s 2009 novel about a 50-year-old married professor who finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Co-written and co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice opens nationwide today.

The trailer below opens with Alice having confusing memory lapses; she later starts to come to terms with what’s actually happening to her and her family, which includes her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three adult kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish).

ALICE

Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter: “Rather than focus on the destructive effect of the disease on relationships, the drama dives deep into how one woman experiences her own deteriorating condition, placing all the emphasis on Moore’s face and reactions, her vulnerability seesawing with her strength.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “’Still Alice’ is about how she reacts to her own deterioration–how she constantly reassesses it and figures out how to cope. She doesn’t always do it with quiet dignity, which is refreshing; sometimes she even uses the disease to manipulate those around her or get out of a social occasion she’d rather avoid.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Moore is especially good at the wordless elements of this transformation, allowing us to see through the changing contours of her face what it is like when your mind empties out. When Alice says at one point ‘I feel like I can’t find myself,’ it is all the more upsetting because we’ve already watched it happen.”

THE DIAGNOSIS AND PROGRESSION OF THE DISEASE

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Determined to continue her research and lifestyle uninterrupted, with the full support of her husband (Alec Baldwin, in one of his more sensitive and totally natural performances) and family, Alice eschews the terror of what lies ahead and embraces logic and common sense.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “It’s not until Alice learns that the disease is hereditary that the severity of her situation sets in: As if it weren’t bad enough that she will eventually cease to recognize her own children, Alice may also be responsible for passing the condition along to them.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “With what seems like shocking rapidity — the film’s chronology is appropriately fuzzy — Alice slides from a witty, intelligent, capable adult into a fragile and confused shadow of her former self.”

ALICE’S FAMILY

David Ehrlich, Time Out: “Perhaps owing to the fact that Glatzer and Westmoreland know a thing or two about living with a debilitating disease (the former has ALS), the movie always evinces an acute understanding of how pity can be the most painful thing to feel for someone you love.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times:”…(I)f it wasn’t for costar Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia, ‘Still Alice’ wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally effective as it is. Moore and Stewart have been off-screen friends for more than a decade, and that bond only enhances the work they do here.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Glatzer and Westmoreland don’t need to stack the emotional deck on Alice’s behalf…They just leave the camera on Moore’s beautiful but increasingly faraway face, and our tears come on their own.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “It surrounds Alice and her family with the signifiers of a perfect, privileged life: impressive jobs, well-raised children, a Manhattan brownstone and a lovely beach house, neither one too showy. But all of this feels like a too tidy garden that has been planted for the sole purpose of introducing a blight and observing its ravages. The story is sad and sincerely told, but it is too removed from life to carry the full measure of pain that Alice deserves.”

David Ehrlich, Time Out: “As tough as it is to watch (I think I cried more during these 99 minutes than I ever have in my life—cumulatively), Still Alice resolves as a beautiful illustration of why the art of losing should never be taken for granted.”

Christy Lemirerogerebert.com: “Co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don’t shy away from the steady and terrifying way the disease can take hold of a person and strip away her ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. But they also don’t tell this story with much nuance or artistry in adapting Lisa Genova’s novel.”

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “While other Alzheimer’s-related films, including Amour, Iris and Away from Her, delved more deeply into the subject, Alice is understated yet still moving.”

Dec 19

“Small Victories” As Seen By Faith-Focused Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is an author who already has legions of fans—but she’l likely earn even more with her most recent and 15th book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which contains 24 essays about loss and grief and other topics of a serious nature.

The reviews are stellar as always. Virginia B. Wood, The Austin Chronicle: “Prime examples of Lamott’s crystalline insights and wicked wit. There are laugh-out-loud moments…and frank revelations about her personal brand of ‘left-wing Christ­i­anity,’ that sound a clarion call to social activism rather than sanctimonious judgment. It is so good to hear from her again.”

Lamott’s Style of Faith

In Small Victories once again the writer’s faith is a main focus. Sandra Dallas, Denver Post: “…But she is not your average self-righteous, preachy born-again. Lamott is funny, witty and irreverent. She is also liberal and non-judgmental, which does not make her a favorite among conservative Christians. It does make her a favorite, however, among those who thinks God has a sense of humor.”

Virginia B. Wood, The Austin Chronicle: “Lamott’s brand of faith is for those who are struggling with religion and haven’t a clue what God wants them to do and be. She believes that ‘God answers prayers eventually — of course, it is the ‘eventually’ that throws one into despair,’ she writes.”

An Overview of Themes 

According to Julia M. Klein, Boston Globe, “Lamott…writes compassionately about near-universal challenges: difficult parents, emotional betrayal, the ravages of illness and grief. Too many of her intimates have been afflicted with serious illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), cancer, and dementia. She portrays them, for the most part, as courageous, life-affirming role models.”

Sarah Hepola, Salon: “…(T)hese stories tackle the inevitable sadness that is our lot as humans — death, cancer, politicians…Like a long, nourishing talk with a very wise friend on topics that confound us: Questionable parenting, needless suffering, weight that feels too heavy to carry alone, and forgiveness, particularly for ourselves.”

Some of the Specific Stories in Small Victories

“Prelude: Victory Lap”—Lamott tells Hepola how she started on this project: “…I had an epiphany about hiking in Muir Woods with a friend with advanced Lou Gehrig’s. We were with her girlfriend of 30 years, in the cathedral of Muir, and I realized that their love, her great courage under fire, and our hike that day were a Victory Lap…”

“Matches”Brooke Lefferts, Miami Herald: “Lamott’s subtle humor is at its best when she describes her foray into Internet dating. Her Goldilocks parade of prospects included men who were anti-religion, self-involved, apolitical and hated her politics. One wore an unbuttoned tropical shirt, another had an unbearable laugh. Alas, no love connection, but she finds satisfaction in conquering the awkwardness and fear of dating.”

One of the most provocative parts for many readers has been her admission that many women her age, including herself, place sex relatively low on their priority lists. Publishers Weekly: “…Lamott is refreshingly frank, admitting that she doesn’t want a passionate relationship as much as she wants “someone to text all day and watch TV with.”

“Barn Raising”—From Hepola’s interview of Lamott: “There’s a line in ‘Barn Raising’ about our dear friends whose daughter got cystic fibrosis, when I offered them the gift of No Comfort — of not foisting happy spiritual horseshit on them, such as the idea that God never gives us more than we can shoulder. WHAT A CROCK. I know that a great blessing for people who are scared and sad is to have friends nearby, just sitting with them, walking their dog, being willing to feel like shit with them, and not have a lot of answers. That’s what I have to offer.”

Her Parents and Childhood—Klein writes about Lamott’s mom and dad material:

In ‘Dad,’ she relates that she adored her alcoholic, philandering father and, when he developed brain cancer, devoted herself to his care. Decades later, his former girlfriend sends along his journal, in which he criticizes Lamott for having ‘tried too hard to be brave and hopeful.’ How can she possibly forgive this? Only, it seems, by tuning in to her pain and seeing her father in all his fearful human complexity.

Her mother — whose ashes reside in Lamott’s closet — poses a different problem. ‘I spent my whole life helping my mother carry around her psychic trunks,’ she writes in the second of two mother essays, ‘like a bitter bellhop.’ Lamott will have to learn, for her own sake, how to put them down. The reward will be the psychic payoff, described in ‘Sustenance,’ of ‘opening myself to my own love and to life’s tough loveliness.’

“The Book of Welcome”Maria Popova, Brainpickings, describes this “especially enchanting essay” as one in which “Lamott imagines a scripture that was never written, a set of guidances and assurances that would avail us of haven from one of our most anguishing pathologies — the sense that we fall short, that we are undeserving of happiness, that we are unlovable and undesired; a sense instilled in many of us by ‘not having been cherished for who we are, by certain tall, anxiously shut-down people in our childhood homes.’”

Friendship-building is often key—having at least one special someone that “welcomes” you: “It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.”

Selected Reviews of Small Victories

Associated Press: “A collection of beautifully written essays, filled with nuggets of wisdom gathered over years of mindful living. The stories tackle some heavy topics…[but] Lamott’s candor, and sarcastic, self-deprecating humor lighten the content and engage readers…Her words heal us all.”

Sandra Dallas, Denver Post“Lamott is funny, witty and irreverent…Her basic message is love and forgiveness…Not a bad message for any faith.”

Kirkus Reviews: “In each essay, Lamott makes evident the fleeting nature of life, noting how our time is finite and that if one searches hard enough, one can make the most of each circumstance—good, bad or ugly.”

Jun 20

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything”: A Summertime DVD

The film is far from a melancholy wallow, but it does examine the ways we cope with loss and the conflicts that result when one person’s healing process is faster or different from another’s. David aspires to be a watcher, a birder who truly communes with nature through the act of seeing. A Birder’s Guide to Everything encourages us to bring the same sense of attunement to each other — to recognize the humanity in everyone we see. Joel Arnold, NPR

According to IMDB, the plot of this year’s A Birder’s Guide to Everything, now on DVD: “David Portnoy, a 15-year-old birding fanatic, thinks that he’s made the discovery of a lifetime. So, on the eve of his father’s remarriage, he escapes on an epic road trip with his best friends to solidify their place in birding history.” David is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Joel Arnold, NPR, elaborates on the simple plot:

David’s possible discovery of a living Labrador duck, a North American species thought to be extinct, sends the guys to Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic titan of the birding world. Konrad confirms that David’s shaky photo could be a Labrador, but the excitement of that meeting is tempered by the painful reminder that Konrad knew David’s mother, an unsung birding hero who passed away a year-and-a-half before. David is still grieving, a process not helped by the fact that his nonbirding dad (James LeGros) is getting married in just a few days — to his mother’s nurse.

Significantly, David and his dad have never processed the death of his mom.

While amateur ornithology helps David avoid dealing with important emotional issues, the trip helps him with escapism from the wedding—in which he’s supposed to be the best man. Accompanying him are best friends and co-birders Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), along with a girl new to the bird club, Ellen (Katie Chang).

Stephen Holden, New York Times, regarding the teens’ characterizations in A Birder’s Guide to Everything:

David and his friends are well-drawn portraits of innocents at an excruciatingly awkward age. Timmy, who affects a transparently bogus machismo, is really a scaredy-cat. After the discovery of a bag of what might be crystal meth under a seat of the car, he panics and imagines that they are being followed by a gang of gun-toting drug dealers. These adolescents are still young enough to be afraid of the dark.

How do you survive the humiliation and embarrassment of being 15 and desperate to be a grown-up? Through patience and the instinctive realization that you’ve reached an awkward transition and that the worst will soon be behind you.

And Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘A Birder’s Guide to Everything’ doesn’t forget that teenagers are not just obsessed with sex and peer-popularity at school, although those ‘types’ may dominate popular cinema. Nerds and geeks are usually the sidekicks in coming-of-age films, but here they take center stage. They are not handled patronizingly. Nobody is mocked for being smart, for having their nose in a book, for wanting to acquire knowledge.”

In birding terms, David is a “lister” who “strives to be a watcher,” viewers find out. As explained by O’Malley, “Watchers are the ones who actually learn how to see, whose obsession drives them into transcendent layers of sight, where the delineation between the bird and the watcher becomes irrelevant. It is a place of one-ness with your passion, with nature…Watching will include not only the birds through his binoculars, but his father, his lost mother, his new stepmom, his friends, himself.”

You can see the trailer below:

Some Reviews

Stephen Holden, New York Times: This gentle comedy, the first feature directed by Rob Meyer, is an eye opener for anyone who takes the everyday natural world for granted. It is also a quiet brief for the cultivation of intellectual curiosity and scientific exploration at an age when hormones rule so much behavior. The reminder that all around us exists a fascinating realm of almost infinite variety is stimulating. Although the movie doesn’t shrink from the notion that serious bird watching is the tiniest bit cuckoo, its overall attitude toward these juvenile naturalists and their mentor is respectfully affectionate.”

Sherilyn ConnellyVillage Voice: “…(I)t’s ultimately yet another movie about fathers and sons who need to learn how to hug. That’s a theme which could stand to go extinct for a few years.”

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…Meyer’s quiet film is about something else; something barely even discussed by the kids: how to find the will, after a tragedy, to move on. In the end, a pale, skinny boy stands at a microphone, and you can almost see his mother with him; he’s grown and changed, in those few days, ready to try to fly again.”