Feb 01

“Women Talking”: Book and Film

To some, this may sound like the kind of verbose material more fit for a stage play than a film. But Women Talking, adapted by the writer-director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, is vibrant cinema. Shirley Li, The Atlantic

Although it’s not just the women who’ve seen Women Talking who get it, I believe the women reviewers overall might get it better. But as Bob Mondello, NPR, states: “Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.”

A brief summary of the book Polley adapted for the screen. Lily Meyer, NPR, indicates that the novel’s author, Miriam Toews, penned a pertinent Author’s Note (part of which also introduces the film):

Between 2005 and 2009, she explains, eight men in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia raped many of the girls and women in their community, first rendering them unconscious with cow anesthetic. Women Talking is ‘both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.’ It is also a work of deep moral intelligence, a master class in ethics beautifully dressed as a novel.

Women Talking is comprised of the conversations that occur over the course of a couple days while the men go away to attend to related legal issues. Katrina Onstad, The Guardian: “One woman defends these conversations: ‘There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.’ It’s a brilliant meta-line that functions as a pre-emptive strike against critics. And the ‘only’ is sharply ironic: in this place – as has often been the case throughout history – women talking is not a small thing, but is in itself action and hence plot.”

Regarding the movie version, Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “The women meet in the barn and discuss their options, boiled down to three: 1.) Do nothing 2.) Stay and fight 3.) Leave the community.”

They ask the only man left—a former apostate named August, who has returned to the community as a schoolteacher—to ‘take the minutes’ of their meeting. (None of the women can read or write.) ‘Taking the minutes’ is an artificial device, but it’s the book’s organizing principle.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:

Within the first few minutes, the main characters make their cases with ferocity, quiet logic or transcendent spiritual belief, depending on their temperament: Pregnant Ona, played with beatific calm by Rooney Mara, proffers her idea of a just outcome, wherein the men agree that women will be equal and educated members of a reconfigured community. Claire Foy’s Salome, outraged at what has been done and condoned, is far less serene, as is spiky Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who advocates for staying, with misgivings that become clearer as the women’s debate ebbs, flows and finally comes to its exhilarating conclusion.

Emily Zemler, The Observer:

Each character has her own beliefs and experiences, but they all want the same thing, which is to feel safe. Ona (Rooney Mara) remains optimistic despite what’s happened to her. August loves her, but she is desperate to find a life outside the colony…Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) stand in as the elder generation, who have been wronged for even longer. Frances McDormand, also a producer, plays a colony leader who is opposed to any discussion of leaving.

Safety from the Sexual Trauma

More from Hornaday: “‘I’m sorry,’ says August (Ben Whishaw)…’One day, I’d like to hear that from someone who should be saying it,’ comes the reply.”

Emily Zemler, The Observer: “It would easy to call Women Talking a #MeToo movie, but it’s a lot more than that. These aren’t trendy conversations; they’re long-held struggles that people of all genders have faced for generations.”

Lindsey Bahr, Chicago Tribune: “‘Women Talking’ is not melodramatic or desperate or exploitative. It is astute and urgent and may just help those previously unable to find words or even coherent feelings for their own traumatic experiences. And hopefully it might just inspire more works of wild female imagination.”

Two Other Themes: Forgiveness, Leaving Vs. Fleeing

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “The debate that unfolds around forgiveness in ‘Women Talking’ remains a radical one throughout, one that differentiates between forgiveness that’s often seen as ‘permission to do more of the same’ and true, unforced forgiveness. Equally invigorating is the women’s logical dissection of the unapologetic autonomy that sets ‘leaving’ and ‘fleeing’ apart.”

Jan 30

“Her”: A Man Falls Romantically for His Operating System

Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and written/directed by Spike Jonze, has created quite a stir, including among those who find it spoof-worthy, as in a recent short film by SNL starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.

The plot is summed up pithily by IMDB: “A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.” The OS is Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Peg Streep, writing in a Psychology Today post, points out that the film takes place in a context in which the majority readily accept Theodore’s relationship status: “The ease with which everyone accepts the relationship as ‘real’ is reminiscent of how quickly the culture has accommodated itself to the ‘new normal’ of living in the digital age, where seeing a couple eating dinner together while texting other people no longer seems strange or ‘friending’ people you don’t know so you can get more attention or feel better about yourself is okay.”

Significant Plot Points

Tom Shone, The Guardian, sets it up:

…(T)he film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses…and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered…while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up ‘Mom points’ for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge ‘You’ve Failed Your Children!’


Alonso DuraldeThe Wrap: “His own emotions…remain a mystery to Theodore; he’s been in a serious funk since breaking up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), to the point where his old college pal Amy (Amy Adams) invites him for a night out with friends but specifies that she’s asking the ‘old, fun’ Theodore to come.”


Scott FoundasVariety: “Lack of physical presence notwithstanding, Samantha at first seems close to the male fantasy of the perfect woman: motherly and nurturing, always capable of giving her undivided attention, and (best of all) requiring nothing in return.”

Below you can watch the trailer:

Selected Reviews

Dana Stevens, Slate: “It’s a wistful portrait of our current love affair with technology in all its promise and disappointment, a post-human Annie Hall.”

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: “What makes ‘Her’ so potent is that it does to us what Samantha does to Theodore. We are informed, cosseted, and entertained, and yet we are never more than a breath away from being creeped out. Just because someone browses your correspondence in a mood of flirtatious bonhomie doesn’t make her any less invasive; and just because you have invited her to do so doesn’t mean that you are in control.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic:

By turns sad, funny, optimistic, and flat-out weird, it is a work of sincere and forceful humanism…

Indeed, by the end of the film, the central question Jonze is asking seems no longer even to be whether machines might one day be capable of love. Rather, his film has moved beyond that question to ask one larger still: whether machines might one day be more capable of love—in an Eastern philosophy, higher consciousness, Alan Wattsian way—than the human beings who created them.

Feb 08

“Side Effects”: This Film’s May Be Dangerous and Unexpected

The new psychological thriller by Steven SoderberghSide Effects, incorporates issues about the potential pitfalls of experimental antidepressants. Neither the pills nor their prescribers nor the pharmaceutical industry, in fact, come off anywhere close to ideal in this movie.

Writer Scott Burns consulted with Dr. Sasha Bardey, who has significant experience in forensic psychiatry. As Bardey states to Daniel D’Addario, Salon, “The only way to remove the stigma around psychiatry is to depict it realistically — to depict it in a lily-white way doesn’t make it more credible.”

The Plot Basics

Because Side Effects is a twisty thriller, no one’s out to spoil it by saying too much. Rooney Mara‘s lead character Emily Taylor is married to Martin (Channing Tatum), who’s been in prison for financial wrongdoing. After trying a bunch of prescribed drugs (nonfictional ones) with unwanted side effects, Emily begins taking an experimental and fictional antidepressant called Ablixa, given to her by her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law.) Catherine Zeta-Jones plays another psychiatrist who has treated Emily.

The Antidepressants

Reviewer Christy Lemire: “In an accurate reflection of our impatient times, everyone in “Side Effects” wants the quick fix: for their finances, careers, reputations, sex lives and, most fundamentally, their moods.”

The Plot, Part II

There’s a murder. Did Emily do it? Did she mean to do it? Or did the pills do it? If so, is her shrink at fault? Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

…(M)emory loss, irresponsible medical treatment and possible insanity come into play. Jonathan’s professional standing takes a big hit, as does his marriage to a beautiful wife (Vinessa Shaw) no one would want to lose. There’s a lot of trade talk about the benefits and side effects of various drugs that might prove fascinating to those interested in such matters and boring to those who are not. But a good deal of the second half is devoted to Jonathan’s downward spiral due to his involvement in this unsavory case, with the uncommonly attractive actors providing by far the paramount reason for any sustained interest.

Here’s the Side Effects trailer:

Therapist Portrayal

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “…(H)e’s not a creep or a perv, in classic movie-shrink fashion; what ultimately makes Banks so disturbing is that he believes he’s doing the right thing all along, but is hemmed in by a medical system, or a world (or just a movie) that makes bad things get worse rapidly.”

The Total Effect: Selected Reviews

Justin Chang, Variety: “What begins as a barbed satire of our pill-popping, self-medicating society morphs into something intriguingly different in ‘Side Effects.’ Steven Soderbergh’s elegantly coiled puzzler spins a tale of clinical depression and psychiatric malpractice into an absorbing, cunningly unpredictable entertainment.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “What it turns out to be is a preposterous puzzle that fails every test under scrutiny, leaving the spectator with a ‘Huh?’ that is meant to be uttered only while chewing gum.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “We’d like to believe that our SSRIs and MAOIs will bring us happiness, that love is real, that art or spirituality can offer transcendence. Steven Soderbergh would like to remind us that it’s all a trick, and we’re on our own.”

Jan 12

“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: Women and Trauma

Two well-received and current films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Martha Marcy May Marlene, deal with serious trauma issues in the lives of women. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the second of these films.

The most recent film adaptation of Stieg Larsson‘s book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), directed by David Fincher, is now in theaters. If you’re not familiar with the themes of this film, you may be interested to know that sexual violence against women figures prominently. The book, in fact, was originally titled Men Who Hate Women (the English translation).

RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, states on its website that the film “…illustrates the real life effects of sexual violence on victims and survivors, emphasizing the importance of getting help. Dragon Tattoo is the first of a trilogy of best selling mystery novels, about a ‘disgraced journalist and troubled young female computer hacker who investigate the mysterious disappearance of an industrialist’s niece.'”

An additional point: “…Interwoven in the film’s main plot line is a series of incidences of violence against women. Each occurrence of sexual abuse, incest, and rape highlight the severity of these crimes against the victim: while an assault may only last moments, the effects of this serious crime can haunt a victim for his or her lifetime.”

The character of Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), the “troubled young female computer hacker,” is a victim of violence who becomes a perpetrator of violence. Some viewers, whether ever victimized themselves or not, will identify with her and revel in her kick-ass attitude, and some may be unable to tolerate all the actual kick-ass. If you’re at all concerned, further reading and/or research on the film’s content may be in order.

One possible aid comes from A.O. Scott‘s (New York Times) film review: “Sexual violence is a lurid thread running through ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ and Mr. Fincher approaches it with queasy, teasing sensationalism. Lisbeth’s dealings with Bjurman include a vicious rape and a correspondingly brutal act of revenge, and there is something prurient and salacious about the way the initial assault is filmed. The vengeance, while graphic, is visually more circumspect.”