Oct 30

“Maniac”: Not-Real Drugs to Cure Mental Illness

If you like quirky fantastical stories that happen to involve the possibility of curing mental illness, Netflix’s Maniac might be for you. As summarized by Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe:

Directed and co-written by the visionary Cary Joji Fukunaga (‘True Detective,’ the next Bond movie), it follows two troubled people, played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, who take part in a pharmaceutical drug trial led by Justin Theroux’s cutting-edge doctor. She’s a depressed, lonely soul, and he’s the son of wealthy New Yorkers whose vivid hallucinations leave even us, the viewers, unsure of what is real. Is the drug trial actually occurring, or is it just another one of his delusions?

Watch the trailer here:

The Pharmaceutical Experiment

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: It “attempts to do what therapy so often cannot—pull apart the issues that define and confine them. And they have some issues.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter, says “the end goal is to erase things like mental illness and unhappy memories, and rewire patients’ brains with three pills (labeled ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’).”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “It’s therapy in ingestible form, with each pill resulting in a vivid genre-based delusion. Annie and Owen find themselves inexplicably linked as they make their way through personalized drug trips that resemble an ’80s action movie.”

Further Plot and Characterization

Episodes of this 10-part mini-series eventually, says Tallerico, “explore the issues at the core of Annie and Owen’s psychological problems with different characters, settings, and tones.”

In one episode, Owen and Annie are an ‘80s Long Island couple trying to steal a lemur with a storytelling style reminiscent of the Coen brothers. In the next, they’re attending a séance in the ‘40s, replicating the playful dialogue and character beats of a classic mystery film. And yet each of these ‘short films within a show’ reflect themes of the real Owen and Annie, whether they be family problems, low self-worth, distrust, or a growing sense that maybe these two were meant for each other for some reason. Even Sally Field appears as, well, you’ll have to wait and see.

Well, you don’t really have to wait at all if you want a little spoiler: she plays Dr. Manterlay’s mom, a pop psychologist/author. And those two have issues too.

Prominent Themes

Troy Patterson, New Yorker: “At once a self-help drama about personal faith and a wry metaphysical mind-bender, ‘Maniac’ is about world-building—about giving an inner life a semblance of coherent narrative, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to get by.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “There are core existential themes…mental illness, unhappiness, loneliness, the constraints of family and the notion of the pursuit of happiness as an illusion — that, depending on your response, are either adequately and entertainingly mined or get a little lost under the impressive visual mayhem on the surface.”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “…ultimately about how the only real cure for endemic loneliness, alienation, and sadness is time, effort, and—above all—friendship. For better and worse, it’s like a psychedelic Hallmark card: gorgeous, clever, weird, but maybe you’ve heard the sentiment before.”

Selected Reviews

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “Your results may vary depending on how important it is to you to have mental illness, grief, unhappiness and other important Big Ideas fully explored via characters you come to love.”

Allison Keene, Collider: “When Maniac is good, it’s funny, affecting, and fascinating; when it’s not good, it’s like having a conversation with a student in a Psych 101 class who wants to tell you about a dream they had last night and what it might mean.”

James Poniewozic, New York Times: “In an age of desiccated puzzle-stories, ‘Maniac’ puts emotion first, even at the risk of sentimentality. It’s a heart-shaped Rubik’s Cube, a funny, consistently surprising fable of broken machines trying to reassemble themselves.”

Nov 17

“Birdman”: Does He Fly? (Reviews of the Film and a Non-Answer)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is getting a lot of critical love—for starters, it features several first-rate performances and is stylistically innovative. For me, on the other hand, the latter aspect actually ruled over substance, when I would usually prefer it the other way around.

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Watching Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s multilayered ‘Birdman’ is like unfolding a piece of intricate origami; it keeps opening in unexpected directions. It’s a movie that can be appreciated on many levels simultaneously: as a backstage-at-the-theater comedy; as a literate and literary character study; as a remarkable achievement in cinematography (it’s filmed as to appear to be one unbroken two-hour shot); as a comment on the nature of contemporary entertainment; as a showcase for one of the year’s finest ensemble casts; and as a surreal tale of a man seeking his soul, with a final image so understated yet beautiful you may find yourself sitting still for a minute longer, happily taking it in.


Tom Long, Detroit News:

So exhilarating it can be exhausting, ‘Birdman’…is a film that challenges, surprises and dazzles while still working at the edges of a frazzled mind.
That mind would belong to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a movie star who long ago played a superhero character named Birdman to international acclaim before walking away from the franchise. Now he’s written an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he’s staging on Broadway, directing himself as the star, trying to reignite his career and validate his work…


Riggin’s costars in the stage play are Mike (Edward Norton), Lesley (Naomi Watts), and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan also have important roles.


Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail:

There’s one more important figure, the title character Birdman, Riggan’s superhero character from decades ago, who lives on as a growling negative voice inside the cracked actor’s head. Nothing’s necessarily entirely literal here, but Birdman is not just the garden variety voice of inner self-loathing…Riggan can move and destroy objects with his mind, rather than just smash them in a bad temper. His madness is distinctly thespian-centric: He believes he can will himself to be someone much greater than he is.

THE TRAILER (With Background Song “Crazy”)


Ty Burr, Boston Globe:

‘Birdman’ — full title ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),’ for reasons that become sort of, kind of, all right, not really clear — is a jaw-dropping stylistic wow that spins, pirouettes, turns inside out, and miraculously stays aloft for two hours.
It’s a backstage drama — correction: It’s a backstage middle-aged male freakout comedy-drama and, as such, possibly a guy’s answer to the anxieties of ‘All About Eve.’

Dana Stevens, Slate: “A movie that, while ultimately less satisfying than I hoped, features two breathtaking star turns: one from its lead actor and another from that camera, wielded by the indisputably magical Emmanuel Lubezki.”

Betsy SharkeyLos Angeles Times: “…(J)ust as the stage belongs to Riggan, ‘Birdman’ belongs to Keaton. It is one of those performances that is so intensely truthful, so eerily in the moment, so effortless in making fantasy reality, and reality fantasy, that it is hard to imagine Keaton will ever be better.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “With grandeur, giddiness and a humanistic nod toward transcendence, “Birdman” vividly evokes a time of equal parts possibility and terrifying uncertainty, and makes a persuasive case that, when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, the best thing to do is to take flight.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “Can Riggan really fly? Can any of us? ‘Birdman’ doesn’t offer the answer, but revels in the question. Soar with it.”