Oct 03

“Kramer Vs. Kramer”: A Re-View

“…In California, I think I found myself. I got myself a job. I got myself a therapist”…now sounds like a slogan for a T-shirt called, simply, the ’70s. Adam Sternbergh, Vulture, quoting Meryl Streep’s character Joanna in 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer

Significantly, the movie that made the most box-office money in 1979 also won the most major Oscars—a rarer feat than you might imagine. It was the divorce and child custody drama Kramer Vs. Kramerin which the mother leaves her family behind.

What brings to mind this groundbreaking film is Michael Schulman‘s newish bio Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep in which the author describes how, in the process of making this film, Streep was given permission to amend some key lines in order to make them ring truer from a woman’s point of view.

When it was released New York Times critic Vincent Canby characterized Kramer Vs. Kramer, starring Dustin Hoffman as Joanna’s husband Michael, as a “fine, witty, moving, most intelligent adaptation of Avery Corman’s best-selling novel.” More about the Kramers:

Though much of Kramer vs. Kramer is occupied with the growing relationship between the abandoned father and son, through tantrums and reconciliations and playground accidents, the central figure is that of the movingly, almost dangerously muddled mother, played by Miss Streep in what is one of the major performances of the year. Joanna is not an easily appealing character, especially when she returns after eighteen months of therapy in California and seeks legal custody of the child she walked out on.

An excerpt from Michael’s court testimony gets to the heart of fathers’ rights:

My wife used to always say to me: ‘Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?’ I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But by the same token, I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is it that makes somebody a good parent? You know, it has to do with constancy, it has to do with patience, it has to do with listening to him. It has to do with pretending to listen to him when you can’t even listen anymore. It has to do with love…

Don’t scroll beyond this trailer if you don’t want to know how things turn out:

From Joanna’s altered-by-Streep speech:

Look, during the last five years of our marriage, I was scared and I was very unhappy. And in my mind I had no other choice but to leave. At the time I left I felt that there was something terribly wrong with me. And that my son would be better off without me. And it was only after I got to California that I realized, after getting into therapy, that I wasn’t such a terrible person and just because I needed some kind of creative or emotional outlet other than my child, that didn’t make me unfit to be a mother. I know I left my son. I know that that’s a terrible thing to do. Believe me I have to live with that every day of my life. But in order to leave him, I had to believe that it was the only thing I could do. And that it was the best thing for him. However, I have since gotten some help, and I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being. And I don’t think I should be punished for that.

Joanna is given primary custody, not an unlikely scenario even today. “Although the law no longer presumes mothers are better parents,” states Lisa Guerin, J.D. (DivorceNet), “the best interests of the child often dictate that children stay with mom.”

But she then lets Billy stay with Dad after all.

Nov 25

“One True Thing” About Family Relationships

The one true thing that can be said about families is that there never really is just one true thing, only a multiplicity of truths, a plurality of perspectives at least as numerous as the participants themselves. Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle, reviewing One True Thing

One True Thing is a film adapted from Anna Quindlen‘s second novel (1995) that’s set at the holidays and deserves to be seen for its depiction of family relationships (by three strong lead actors) and “plainly portraying and exploring the treacherous emotional depths of a situation that most of us must face at some point in our lives” (Stephen Holden, New York Times).

That situation involves providing care to a terminally ill parent or other family member.

The Amazon editorial review of the book has been updated to set up the movie (1998) as well: “One True Thing is a film starring Meryl Streep as the cancer-stricken homemaker mother, Renee Zellweger as the daughter who quits her top-dog job to care for her, and William Hurt as the chilly professor who lets the women in the family do the heavy emotional lifting dying requires. But the real star of the project remains former New York Times everyday-life columnist Anna Quindlen, who quit her top-dog job to write novels (and who took time off from college to nurse her own dying mother).”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “This is far from a disease-of- the-week picture, and it’s not the usual number about families coming together in bad times. Illness is a backdrop for a more complicated story about a young woman’s finding her values tested and discovering the mother she took for granted.”

The Trailer

Notably, the trailer features Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and its I’ve been afraid of changing… lyric that was the subject of a recent post:

Additional Info About the Plot and Family Relationships

The movie is told through flashbacks. We know at the outset that Kate (Streep) may have been illegally euthanized.

The following are some of the main points we then learn about the family’s process:

Whereas Dad (Hurt) expects Ellen (Zellweger) to sacrifice her career to take care of Mom, he believes her younger brother should be allowed to stay at school. And Kate’s own wishes in the matter aren’t even elicited.

Kate, whom Holden (NY Times) calls “the supermom to end all supermoms,” is not the role model Ellen has desired; her literature professor dad is.

Todd McCarthy, Variety: “The main problem…is that Ellen and her mother have never gotten along. Ellen, a determined career woman, has increasingly come to view her mom’s world as an unbearably boring, circumscribed one defined by dreary housekeeping duties and silly relationships with endlessly chattering old biddies.”

Rita Kempley, Washington Post:

Ellen’s contempt for her mother is undisguised, but Kate is too loving to chide her daughter or complain. Then, Ellen is forced to confront her greatest fear. ‘The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother’s life,’ she observes, ‘and here I am living it.’

Gradually, she realizes that her father is hardly the great and good man she believed him to be, nor is Kate merely a chipper, cookie-baking nitwit. And after wearing Kate’s apron for a time, she is awed and humbled by all that her mother has accomplished in what was a wonderful life.

Other Lessons Learned

Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader: “…(I)ts limited agenda is to remind us that physical and emotional suffering lead to revelations, because a sense of mortality puts things in perspective the way nothing else can.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…not really about an adult woman’s relationship with her father or mother. It’s more subtle. It’s about her relationship with the internalized Mom-and-Dad within — and how a crisis causes her to reassess what she values.”

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “No matter how well we eventually come to understand our parents, our deepest feelings about them are formed at a time when we are young and have incomplete information…The movie’s lesson is that we go through life telling ourselves a story about our childhood and our parents, but we are the authors of that story, and it is less fact than fiction.”

Aug 07

“Ricki and the Flash”: A Walk-Away Mom Returns to Family

…(I)ts biggest statement is a quick, sharp dig when Ricki takes the stage to point out that Mick Jagger has seven kids by four women, and no one tells him to quit rock for parenthood. Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly, regarding Ricki and the Flash

Although Meryl Streep the actress can arguably do no wrong, her character in Jonathan Demme‘s new film Ricki and the Flash has a lotta ‘splainin’ to do. Many years ago, in order to pursue her rock-star dreams, Ricki just up and left her husband and kids. Not that she stopped all contact, but over the years she’s become less and less available.

But with the advent of a recent family crisis, Ricki’s ex (Kevin Kline) contacts her. As further explained by Gregory Ellwood, Hitfix:

Julie, Ricki’s thirtysomething daughter (played by Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer), is having a breakdown. Her husband has left her for another woman and she’s holed up in her father’s Indianapolis home trying to recover. An almost penniless Ricki shows up on her ex’s doorstep to help. Her style and demeanor are almost alien to everyone around her, but she tries to fit into this opulent Middle America world her offspring have thrived in. Yes, Ricki has two other grown up sons, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), and it’s not entirely clear either is happy to see her.

More info about Ricki’s sons: Joshua’s about to get married; Adam happens to be gay.

Ricki’s not going to have an easy time of it, of course. After all, she is the oft-reviled “walk-away mom” as defined by Peggy Drexler, PhD (Psychology Today): a mother who “lives apart from her children by choice. She didn’t lose them; she left them – for a dream, for a job, for a relationship, for the sheer need to rediscover a self she feels has been subsumed by family.” This type of mom, I’m sure you already know, faces significantly worse societal judgment than the same type of dad.

What facts back up the harsher condemnation directed toward moms who walk versus dads who walk? Possibly none. Drexler (CNN) cites research showing that “children raised in single-father homes as a whole fare as well as those in single-mother homes. From an emotional standpoint, there are no studies to show that children of absentee mothers are angrier than those of absentee fathers. But anecdotally, this seems to be the case.”

Drexler offers a “positive spin” to this issue, however:

Most experts, myself included, agree that it’s better for a child to have an absent parent than a parent who’s present but neglectful — or worse.

And in my experience, children who come to accept the abandonment of a parent, specifically a mother, tend to be more forgiving when they believe that in doing so they were given a better life, whether that was the mother’s intent or not.

Getting back to Ricki and the Flash, will her three adult kids be able to accept or relate to her now that she’s back in town? Forgive her?

Watch the trailer and see if you’re sufficiently intrigued:

“Ricki” (the Character) in Review

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “This woman, in her too-tight pants and high-heeled boots, has a funnily stiff walk, a raunchy little laugh, and a lived-in voice that suggests too many nights in smoke-filled rooms. And while she’s not very perceptive, she does know that she failed her children and is desperate to shield herself from that pain.”

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: “…[Streep’s] most emotionally blocked character in years, without caricature. She’s graced by an angel at her side (Rick Springfield, superb with a touch of gray) and finds her way to the soul of several songs. There’s devastating connection and tears in these moments: delicate gratitude in ‘Drift Away,’ nothing short of maternal redemption in a roaring version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’.”

Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter: “Left to face the choices she’s made, Ricki ultimately gets to save the day while staying true to herself. That might feel like a cheat if not for Streep’s unapologetic portrait of a woman who refuses to be defeated.”

Feb 03

“Into the Woods”: Themes and Psychology of Movie Version

Into the woods–you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go,
There’s more to learn of what you know.

From Into the Woods

Scott Foundas, Variety, describes the characters and plot of Rob Marshall‘s Into the Woods, the movie version of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine play:

The lineup includes a humble baker (the very appealing James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and who live next door to a haggard old witch (Meryl Streep) with many axes to grind. Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes  punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden, once upon a time). But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

It is that quest which leads the childless couple into said woods, and into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), giving chase to a confounded Prince Charming (Chris Pine); and Little Red herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain Mr. Wolf (a lip-smacking Johnny Depp, in slanted fedora and a kind of hirsute smoking jacket).

The Trailer

Themes and Psychology in Into the Woods

As the ads for Into the Woods declare, “Be careful what you wish for.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, on main themes: “…the parental urge to teach and protect; the child’s propensity to learn more by experience and error; the marvels and menace of the world beyond home; the pain of loss; and the solace of community.”

Kat Brown, Telegraph: “Besides its themes of loss and uncertainty, the show’s main message — underlined by the show stopper ‘No One Is Alone’ — is about the importance of community.”

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Psychology Today:

As explained in an article by the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Ace G. Pilkington, composer Stephen Sondheim built Jungian themes into the musical. Jung himself regarded fairy tales as centering on what he called ‘archetypes’ involving such characters as heroes (the princes), tricksters (the wolf), and evil (the giant). However, it’s the woods themselves that serve as the main transformative agent. As people explore the woods, they explore their own underlying identities.

The Beginning and Middle Vs. the Ending

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com: “Eventually, everyone’s wish comes true in one form or another. Then, in the final act, everything falls apart…Death, infidelity, disillusionment and finger-pointing eventually result in a communal healing process that certainly will ring true to audiences who are regularly exposed to such real-life aftermaths in the wake of tragic disasters both natural and man-made these days.”

Selected Reviews

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “With archness and irony, ‘Into the Woods’ goes deeper into the fairy stories, allowing us to see familiar archetypes in new and not so flattering ways.”

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “The first two-thirds of the film, which are like the Brothers Grimm’s Greatest Hits on laughing gas, have a fizzy, fairy-dust energy. But as soon as the baker couple’s scavenger hunt is over and a rampaging giant appears, Woods loses its magic and momentum and sags like an airless balloon.”

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com: “The casting feels mostly flawless…The singing is often splendid. The bits of humor are deftly handled. The pace is relatively swift. And it never feels like a static rendition of a theatrical event dumbed down for a younger demographic.”

Dec 01

“The Homesman”: Mental Health Issues in the Old West

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are getting kudos for their roles in the new female-centric Western called The Homesman, directed and co-written by Jones. The film, adapted from a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, is also getting some decent reviews.

The official description of the film:

When three women living on the edge of the American frontier are driven mad by harsh pioneer life, the task of saving them falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a low-life drifter, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), to join her. The unlikely pair and the three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) head east, where a waiting minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in. But the group first must traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat.

Other people met along the way include “an opportunistic cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson)…and an unctuous innkeeper (James Spader), unrealistically holding out for a better class of clientele than one usually finds on the lone prairie” (Pete Vonder Haar, Village Voice).

You can view the trailer below:

The Mental Health Issues

Peter Debruge, Variety, comments on attitudes toward mental health issues back then and now:

‘People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,’ notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins. That amateur philosopher’s observation is as true today as it might have been in 1854, which means instead of rehashing the same stale Old West stories that have all but exhausted the genre, ‘The Homesman’…has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.

Fiona Williams, sbs.com.au, about the film’s setup: “A town meeting is called to address a community mental health crisis, described euphemistically by the preacher (John Lithgow) as ‘some trouble amongst the women.’ A trio of females have succumbed to their darker instincts, driven mad by alienation, bad marriages, and the stockpiling corpses of their sick babies.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The three demented women include a catatonic, doll-clutching 19-year-old (Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer) banished by her husband after losing her baby; a violent schizophrenic (Miranda Otto) who threw her newborn infant down the hole of an outhouse; and a hysterical immigrant (Sonja Richter) who lost her mother in the snow and now spends her days screaming for an exorcism from the devil.”

Overall Reviews

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Few will regret having seen ‘The Homesman,’ and yet it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. The film occupies that peculiar space that many of us would prefer to believe doesn’t exist, a movie that’s worthy but often inert, by turns enriching and enervating: a good boring movie.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “‘The Homesman’ is both a captivating western and a meticulous, devastating feminist critique of the genre.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “A wrenching, relentless and anti-heroic western that stands among the year’s most powerful American films. Not everyone will like ‘The Homesman,’ but if you see it you won’t soon forget it.”