Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric Film and Post

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 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, Village Voiceaddresses 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:

…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:


Roger Ebert, “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, 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.


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,

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 Tavris’s book was considered controversial at the time, 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.”

Anatole Broyard, The New York Times, summarized some of her suggestions for getting rid of anger: “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.”

In her New York Times review Jane E. Brody 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, a belief still persists, however, 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).

From noted anger researcher Brad Bushman (Psychology Today): “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.)”

For getting rid of anger Bushman endorses such things as relaxing, counting to 10, reframing the problem or conflict, distraction, and detachment. Also, “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.”

Below Steven Stosny, PhD, who regularly addresses anger management in his clinical work, presents his “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.