Aug 12

“I Know This Much Is True”: Family Issues

In I Know This Much Is True, the recent HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb‘s 1998 novel of the same name, Mark Ruffalo superbly portrays 40-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Whereas the former has generally been a reasonably functional guy, the latter has paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of institutions since his early adulthood.

During the course of this six-part mini-series so much tragedy befalls the brothers that critic Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, opines that ” few will avoid compassion fatigue before the end.” I have to agree. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth seeing, if nothing else for the performances and a strong lesson in the theme that mental illness affects the whole family.

Perhaps if anyone in the family had ever received adequate help to guide them through Thomas’s diagnosis, things would have turned out different for the Birdseys—that is to say, better. At the start of I Know This Much Is True, Thomas, for example, may be getting by at his state-run facility known as Settle, but he is nonetheless dangerously symptomatic. Out in public he commits an act of extreme self-harm, which leads to an involuntary commitment to Hatch, a forensic facility notable for its cruelty.

Through many scenes that go back and forth in time we learn that Dominick, on the other hand, has struggled throughout their lives to act as Thomas’s guardian, at times appointed by others, e.g, a teacher or parent, at other times self-appointed. The extreme difficulty of this has raised all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and attitudes, including over-responsibility, confusion, guilt, and resentment. To his detriment, he has carried these mostly on his own shoulders.

Several years before Thomas’s commitment to Hatch the twins lose their mother (Melissa Leo) to cancer. Although their abusive stepfather cares about them he isn’t emotionally strong enough to be sufficiently supportive to either.

On top of all this, “Dominick’s mother never told him who his and Thomas’ biological father was, a mystery that eats away at him long after she’s gone. Her parting gift, a manuscript written by his Sicilian grandfather, dangles the possibility of answers” (Melanie McFarland, Salon).

Dominick, who married college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), a match that once had significant potential, is now divorced. His current girlfriend is more self-involved than attentive, which seems reciprocal on Dominick’s part.

In desperately hoping to have Thomas transferred back to Settle, where he at least had a job and a certain comfort level, Dominick grudgingly becomes acquainted with Hatch’s down-to-earth social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) as well as Thomas’s caring new psychologist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). Both readily recognize that Dominick—angry, aggressive, and decreasingly healthy—needs professional assistance as much as Thomas does.

Whereas Sheffer tries to prepare Dominick for Thomas’s upcoming commitment hearing, Patel wants this therapy-resistant but desperately lost man to talk to her about his issues. (Shades of Nick Nolte‘s character seeing his suicidal sister’s psychiatrist in The Prince of Tidessans the poor therapist boundaries.) Quality professional help arriving so late in the game, however, fails to prevent mishap after tragedy after trauma in the brothers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dominick feels his life has been “cursed”—a notion reinforced by reading his maternal grandfather’s bio—and that he’s a victim of his various tragic circumstances rather than a participant. By the very end of I Know This Much Is True, though, we do know he’s learned a thing or two about such things as self-care and forgiveness.

Dec 03

“Spotlight”: Boston Globe Uncovers Rampant Abuse By Priests

“You feel trapped because he has groomed you. How do you say no to God?” victim Phil Savino, played by Neal Huff, tells [reporter] Pfeiffer [Rachel McAdams] in one early scene. About abuse uncovered in Spotlight (Reuters.com)

Although Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, based on The Boston Globe‘s uncovering (2001-02) of the extensive incidence of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, is more about the press’s process and less about the victims themselves, it’s made clear there’d be no story at all without the courageous testimonies of the men and women “so traumatized they can’t find the words to describe what was taken from them” (Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com).

A Brief Synopsis

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press:

Spotlight refers to the paper’s four person investigative team responsible for exposing the systematic cover-up of the pedophilia of more than 70 local priests — editor Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

…’Spotlight’ pulls off the tricky feat of detailing the tick-tock of it all, while also giving due respect to the victims, the enablers and the believers.

It takes the arrival of a true outsider to challenge everyone to look a little harder at what’s happening. In this case, it’s the Globe‘s new editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). One character who questions his arrival notes he’s an unmarried Jew who hates baseball. But most damning of all — he’s not a local.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap:

As the Spotlight team begins digging, they find more and more victims willing to speak out against more and more clergy, but Baron eventually realizes that the story is bigger that that: it’s about Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) and a culture of silence wherein parents were pressured to settle while guilty priests were shipped off to new parishes (and new victims) after a few months of therapy.

Praise for Spotlight‘s Realism

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Maybe it’s too early to decide whether ‘Spotlight’ is among the best Boston movies ever made — the accents are fine, the filmmakers seem to have the lay of the land — but in certain awful aspects it’s the most truthful.”

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: “It’s the story behind the story, and it’s the film equivalent of reading an especially thrilling New Yorker article: ruthlessly detailed, precise and gripping but never brash or overemotional.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions.”

The Victims

Justin Chang, Variety: “Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.”

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: “There are just enough testimonies here and encounters with victims to make the human side of the story crystal clear without losing focus on the bigger picture of establishment corruption. It’s that all-too-rare beast: a movie that’s both important and engrossing.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “Ultimately, ‘Spotlight’ never treats its subject matter as mere fodder for its journalists to cover; the horror of what’s being uncovered remains front and center, and as the closing credits roll, it’s the pain and suffering of the victims that stay with you as much as the bravery of the Globe staff.”

Beyond Spotlight: The Ongoing Story

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘Spotlight’ also shows a deeper truth, the level of psychological trauma brought on by abuse, not just to the victims, but to horrified Catholics everywhere. ‘Spotlight’ takes faith seriously. An ex-priest turned psychiatrist is an important source, and when he’s asked how Catholics reconcile the abuse scandal with their faith, he replies, ‘My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two’.

As reviewer Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter, concludes about the story’s scope beyond the past and well beyond Boston: “In the end, this material can’t help but be interesting, even compelling up to a point, but its prosaic presentation suggests that the story’s full potential, encompassing deep, disturbing and enduring pain on all sides of the issue, has only begun to be touched.”

Jul 03

“Infinitely Polar Bear”: A Dad With Bipolar Disorder

The devastating effect of bipolar disorder on marriage and other personal relationships is not a new subject, but in most movies it is examined from a woman’s perspective. Infinitely Polar Bear, a terrible turn-off title for one of the best films of the year, views the affliction and its psychological repercussions through a different lens. Rex Reed, New York Observer

In the new 1970’s-set dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo‘s Cameron must leave his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky) to live in a halfway house after suffering a mental breakdown.

Cam has known for a while that he has manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder). “His African-American girlfriend…married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway,” states Justin Chang, Variety.

The main event occurs when Maggie wants to leave the Boston area to attend business school in New York. Cam, working on his recovery, then becomes the primary live-in parent.

Why such a need for Maggie to leave town? Because she needs a better career, she reasons, in order to send her kids to private school. Some critics have wondered why Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t just help out. For that matter, can’t she attend school closer to home?

More understandable in terms of plot development, it turns out Cam neither likes being on his Lithium nor has a strong ability to be a single father. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he’s so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family’s new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he’s the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

Although fictional, the script is based on the childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes, whose father had once described his own illness as “infinitely polar bear.”

The trailer’s below:

Ruffalo’s Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…(H)e doesn’t reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He’s always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he’s at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “At its best, Infinitely Polar Bear is about a nice, unbalanced man trying and often failing to do right by his kids, and vice versa. And Ruffalo is the least histrionic of actors even when Cam is, as the social workers put it, ‘disinhibited,’ when he never shuts up and pulls stunts that bemuse or alienate every adult in his orbit. He’s a big kid himself — impulsive, charming, self-involved and mostly ill-attuned to the social signals of others.”

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “…Forbes hasn’t made a movie about her father’s illness; she’s made one about her father, who, through hard and weird times, clearly helped give her what she needed so that one day she could tell this story.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “The movie is a small miracle, lifted by Ruffalo and these two remarkable young actresses. Refusing to soften the edges when Cam is off his meds, Ruffalo is a powerhouse. He and Forbes craft an indelibly intimate portrait of what makes a family when the roles of parent and child are reversed.”

Jan 20

“Foxcatcher”: Mental Instability and Personality Issues

Foxcatcher, based on a true story, has been nominated for several Oscars, including original screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, best director (Bennett Miller), and best actor/best supporting actors Steve Carell as John DuPont and Mark Ruffalo as wrestler Dave Schultz.

From the synopsis by J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “A paranoid schizophrenic insulated by obscene wealth, du Pont used his family’s Foxcatcher farm as headquarters for a wrestling camp to groom athletes for the U.S. Olympic team; his tangled relationships with wrestling hopeful Mark Schultz [Channing Tatum] and with Mark’s older brother, gold medalist Dave Schultz, ended tragically in January 1996 when du Pont murdered Dave.”

However, offering what’s true and what’s not in the movie, Aisha Harris of Slate states, “Most notably, perhaps, the movie makes no mention of du Pont’s diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia, which, at his trial, was offered as an explanation for the murder.”

What is acknowledged in the film, states Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, is “a certain, tactful degree of du Pont’s drug use, his personality disorders and bizarre behavior, all documented. Plenty more is elided or left out, especially to do with du Pont’s sexually predatory nature.”

A member of duPont’s actual defense team was forensic psychiatrist Phillip Resnick. In an interview with Michael Heaton, Cleveland.com, Resnick states about duPont’s deterioration: “[He] is an example of a person whose wealth becomes an obstacle to getting needed mental health care. Many of Mr. du Pont’s employees were aware of his paranoia. However, anyone who attempted to force his involuntary hospitalization would be at high risk of losing their job. In that sense, Mr. du Pont’s wealth allowed him to remain untreated and thus set the stage for his personal tragedy.”

DuPont, by the way, was found guilty of murder, but mentally ill. He died in prison in 2010.

More about how the movie portrays the story after this trailer:

FOXCATCHER‘S PORTRAYAL OF DUPONT AND THE BROTHERS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

Playing a young man who doesn’t have a clue how to articulate his feelings and suffers for it, Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat, able to be manipulated this way and that by his benefactor. You feel his pain. As the older and exceptionally capable older brother, Ruffalo bestows his character with a profoundly genial nature that suggests that no one could possibly dislike this guy, much less be provoked to murder him. But he had emotional wealth, instant likeability and physical capacity, things John du Pont could never buy.

OVERALL REVIEWS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “Shrinks could have a field day with all the complicated dynamics running though these relationships, which help make the drama such a rich experience.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic: “There’s something inevitably remote about a movie that refuses so ardently to get into the heads of its characters. The result is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one in which to invest emotionally, even when it enters into its final, tragic arc. Foxcatcher is among the best movies of the year, but ultimately it seems one better suited for awards than for audiences.”

Bob Mondello, NPR: “…Miller uses three superb performances to take us deep into a privileged world where the choreographed struggle of wrestling mixes toxically with the psychological struggles of familial disappointment. The film does not — or maybe cannot — explain the inexplicable: the acts of a mentally ill man. But it can make the plight of those in that man’s orbit profoundly anguishing.”

Dec 16

“You Can Count On Me”: Brother and Sister Reconnect

For all the bullying inspirational slogans hurled at us about never giving up on your dream, following your bliss and today being the first day of the rest of your life, the fact remains that most people’s lives run on fairly narrow tracks. And in the real world, as opposed to self-help fantasyland, once you find yourself on a track, it’s awfully hard to get off, even if it’s headed nowhere in particular. Stephen Holden, reviewing You Can Count On MeThe New York Times,  

On the occasion of the underseen film The Skeleton Twins (see previous post) being released on DVD, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another brother/sister film, the character-driven You Can Count On Me, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Not only was it one of the best movies of 2000 but also one of the best ever about sibling relationships. 

In brief, single-mom Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney), gets an unexpected visit from Terry (Mark Ruffalo), her brother and only sibling. FYI, their parents were killed in a car accident when they were kids.

SAMMY

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.”

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “…(S)he’s having trouble with her nitpicking boss (perennial manchild Matthew Broderick), who’s unsympathetic toward her child issues and objects to such things as purple-colored text on computer screens.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Ms. Linney’s Samantha may be a responsible mother and churchgoing Catholic, but we learn that she was a wild teenager who has had to choke back her rebellious instincts in order to bring up her son. Even now, her innate rebelliousness still manifests itself in ways both small (she secretly smokes cigarettes) and large (she recklessly initiates an affair with her new boss, a persnickety straight arrow with a pregnant wife).”

TERRY

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “Terry is her easy-come, easy-go brother, one of those charmers who drives you nuts because you love him but you can’t count on them.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man with a penchant for getting into fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, ew.com: “He has pushed away grief by not committing anywhere, to anyone, and strewing mess in his wake.”

TERRY AND HIS NEPHEW RUDY

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “Sammy, who needs someone to watch Rudy, talks her brother into doing the honors. But although Terry connects wonderfully with Rudy, his idea of child care is hardly gleaned from Dr. Spock. He thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette, cursing like a sailor and advising Rudy to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he’s old enough.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The culminating event, an excruciating, brilliantly executed scene of emotional chaos as old personal wounds are ripped open, is Terry’s impulsive, ill-advised decision to take Rudy on a surprise visit to meet his roughneck biological father (Josh Lucas) whom Samantha has built up as a hero to the boy.”

SAMMY AND TERRY

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Samantha is furious and disappointed by her brother’s lack of direction and behavioral sloppiness. He in turn is contemptuous of her for remaining stuck in Scottsville, whose small-town atmosphere he finds suffocating.”

Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle:

As adults, the siblings maintain their childhood confidant-adversary relationship. In one scene, they share a joint and a big secret before a casual remark turns into a testy exchange about Sammy’s parenting abilities. Later, when Sammy sends a clergyman to counsel the aimless Terry, he seems receptive, all the while plotting revenge on his sister. Just as any kid brother would.

The safety of their renewed family bond lets each sibling branch out. Sammy, so compulsively organized that she files personal correspondence along with her tax returns, rediscovers a wild side and engages in some surprising acts. Her brother, oblivious at first to Sammy’s need for him, warms to the idea of a family bond and becomes a father figure to Sammy’s son.