Oct 01

“The Skeleton Twins”: Siblings Suicidal

According to the website for Craig Johnson‘s new film The Skeleton Twins, “Family is a cruel joke.”

Johnson places his emphasis here on the relationship between a brother and sister (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader). Critic Andrew O’Hehir calls this new film “a potent sibling dramedy,” and Jonathan Kim (The Huffington Post) says it’s “movie siblings (finally) done right.”

Wiig and Hader, both well known for their stints on Saturday Night Live, are not, however, playing characters who have fun-filled lives. We know right from the start, in fact, that each is having serious suicidal thoughts. More like “Saturday Night Dead,” quips Richard Corliss, Time.

Geoff Berkshire, Variety, explains the plot further:

Aspiring actor Milo lives in Los Angeles and is fresh out of a failed relationship, while Maggie is a New York dental hygenist in a seemingly happy marriage to gregarious guy’s-guy Lance (Luke Wilson). Of the two, Milo is the one who goes through with it, slitting his wrists in a bathtub. It’s a phone call informing her that her brother is in the hospital that pulls Maggie back from the brink. She rushes to his side and, after some initial awkwardness, the ice is broken by a memorable gag involving ‘Marley and Me,’ effectively demonstrating their shared sense of humor.

Turns out they’ve been estranged for 10 years. Nevertheless, Milo lets his sister bring him back to Nyack, New York, the area where they grew up.

THE SKELETON TWINS

Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle: “The twins share a dark sense of humor, and both grapple with why and how their lives became detached not just from each other, but from the paths of promise they thought were in store for them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Milo uses humor as a natural defense mechanism, even if it doesn’t always mask the grimace of discomfort, while the more outwardly thorny Maggie subjects herself and everyone around her to wild mood swings. ‘Landmines, dude,’ explains Lance, about the challenges of navigating his wife’s volatility.”

Things are gradually revealed in this film that would have had more impact on me, I think, if I hadn’t read the reviews beforehand. For the sake of those who need to have certain info, though, in order to assess whether to see a dysfunctional-family movie, I will give some basic specifics—starting now—including that their mom (Joanna Gleason) is New-Agey, self-involved, and unavailable and that their dad killed himself when they were teens.

For therapy buffs (is there such a thing?), we learn in a brief scene that Milo and Maggie were sent to a shrink way back when. And that they didn’t respond so well to continually being asked to journal, journal, journal.

MORE ABOUT MILO 

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “When he was 15, Milo was seduced by his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), who is now back in the closet, with a 16-year-old son and trying to make his latest heterosexual relationship work. Milo’s return to Nyack unsettles this secret-laden educator, who now works in a bookstore.”

MORE ABOUT MAGGIE

Richard Corliss, Time: “She hides her grief behind a suburban housewife’s little festival of passive-aggressive behavior. In a particularly desperate moment, she screams into a pillow. And when she tells Lance ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I want to love you but can’t.” Lance, who everyone agrees is the most decent guy in the world, has a knitted-brow heartiness that grates on Maggie. Not his fault: his jock adolescence matured into love for this sweet, strange woman he can’t quite understand.”

MORE ABOUT LANCE

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “One of the most rewarding aspects of ‘Skeleton Twins’ is the unlikely alliance that sprouts between Lance and Milo, two guys who could hardly be more different. It would have been awfully easy to make Lance a homophobic jerk, but he doesn’t seem bothered by Milo’s sexuality at all. Instead he’s a decent, loving man with relatively modest aspirations, who has to come to grips with the fact that he barely knows the woman who claims to love him but has repeatedly lied to him.”

SELECTED REVIEWS

Jonathan Kim, Huffington Post: “The Skeleton Twins is very funny, but with touching and heartfelt scenes to go along with the film’s themes of suicide, depression, disappointment, and infidelity. And there are other themes that most adults, particularly siblings, will relate to — the fear that you peaked in high school, the disappointments of adulthood, wondering if you’re the most screwed up of your siblings, the difficulties of being true to yourself, and the questions and chasms left behind by an absent parent.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “…The Skeleton Twins gets it right. Warm, funny, heartfelt and even uplifting, the film is led by revelatory performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both of them exploring rewarding new dramatic range without neglecting their mad comedic skills.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “…’The Skeleton Twins’ captures the way siblings develop their own unique comedic shorthands in a way few films ever have. Johnson also nails the flip side of that tight link: They’re capable of hurting each other like no one else can.”

Dec 20

“Mr. Holland’s Opus”: For Your Holiday Consideration

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) over and over again—but have you ever seen Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)? Because the two films have a lot in common.

First, the plot in brief: Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) would rather be a musician than the teacher he is. Or, as put by Jack Mathews, Los Angeles Times: “…the tale of a man compelled to give up his dream of writing a world-class symphony to become instead a world-class high school music teacher. A case of opus interruptus.”

Holland’s wife Iris is played by Glenne Headly. One of their significant challenges as a couple begins when their toddler son, Cole, is found to be 90% deaf.

And now, some of the comparisons made by film critics to It’s a Wonderful Life:

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Directed by Stephen Herek, Mr. Holland’s Opus is a big, patchy, episodic weeper set against the postwar rise and fall of America’s secondary-school music programs. The movie spans some 30 years and is patterned after It’s a Wonderful Life. Holland, like James Stewart’s George Bailey, has to give up his pipe dreams and see that humanity is his work, that it always has been.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Borrowing heavily from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script stresses the pleasures and rewards in life that are unplanned and unanticipated. Initially, Holland accepts his school job as a ‘backup’ position that will give him free time to compose, never imagining that his next 30 years would be spent in the classroom. But forced to redefine his dream, Holland ultimately realizes that he is not a failure, that his legacy as an inspirational teacher is just as important as his longed-for opus.”

Common Sense Media: “Less Stand and Deliver, more It’s a Wonderful LifeMr. Holland’s Opus offers a poignant (albeit sappy) look at personal sacrifice, responsibility, and the impact teachers can have on students beyond the classroom. Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of his career as the wily, often frustrated Glenn Holland, breathing life into a character that could easily have fallen into caricature territory.”

This role earned Dreyfuss major award nominations and was a career comeback for him after experiencing some serious life problems. Besides battling addiction, he’d also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Dreyfuss told Barbara Peters Smith, Herald-Tribune, that his shrink provided him great relief by telling him, “Richard, somewhere in your head is a faucet that is dripping either too quickly or too slowly, and we can help you.”

Now regularly speaking openly about his diagnosis and treatment, Dreyfuss is committed to trying to end mental health stigma for others.

If you don’t want a spoiler ending for Mr. Holland’s Opus, stop reading now. Here are the words of former student Gertrude Lang (Joanna Gleason), now a governor, who addresses Holland and a large crowd of supporters:

Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.