Dec 26

“Welcome to Marwen”: Unique Post-Trauma Strategy

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and write. True story behind Welcome to Marwen

Before Robert Zemeckis‘s new film Welcome to Marwen was the 2010 Marwencol, a highly acclaimed documentary that also depicted the story of Mark Hogancamp in a truer-to-life form.

What led to the life-destroying hate crime against Hogancamp? He’d “told a patron in a bar that he was a cross-dresser who liked to put on nylon stockings and heels” (Advocate).

Hogancamp happens to be a cross-dresser who’s heterosexual. “Though he does not identify as transgender,” states Ariel Sobel, The Advocate, “if Hogancamp had not survived the near-fatal attack he experienced for even talking about cross-dressing, his story would have resembled the many lives taken for not abiding by the societal rules of the gender binary.”

David Ehrlich, IndieWire, describes how Hogancamp created his own rehab program when health insurance no longer supported his needed care.

His solution? To create a rich fantasy world out of the 12-inch, 1:6 scale figures he once painted; a miniature town called Marwencol (located in Belgium circa World War II) in which he could re-enact his trauma in a refuge that was under his full control. A captain named Hogie became his pint-sized alter-ego, S.S. troops stood in for his assailants, and female dolls represented the various women in his life (Hogancamp even built a catfight bar for them to work in, as his version of the past assumed the feeling of a sweet, pulpy, and surprisingly asexual serial). The lifelike, hyper-expressive photographs he took of these scenes attracted some attention, and Hogancamp soon found himself celebrated as a naïve and enchanted outsider artist…

As Zemeckis portrays the women, included are “a loud Russian caretaker” (Gwendoline Christie), “a one-legged physical therapist” (Janelle Monáe), a coworker (Elza González), and his doll supplier (Merritt Wever), for starters. Plus two more special ladies:

Of course, the two most important women in Mark’s life are the one he hasn’t met yet, and the one he can’t seem to forget. First up is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a kind and curious soul who’s just moved in to the house across the street, and is trying to shake off a tragedy of her own. She also has a greasy and abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson)…

Finally, there’s Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the wicked witch of Marwen, who murders any of the gals who get too close to her man Hogie. The only character with no human counterpart, Deja broadly represents Mark’s loneliness, though ham-fisted writing and her pill-blue hair make her seem like a manifestation of the anti-depressants that he takes every morning.

Considering the decidedly mixed-to-worse critical reviews of Welcome to Marwen, perhaps the emotion-tugging trailer itself is preferable viewing:

Selected Reviews

Emily Yoshida, Vulture: “The Marwencol documentary saved the reveal of Mark’s cross-dressing as a third-act twist, possibly to its detriment. The least that can be said for Zemeckis’s adaptation is its willingness to embrace that queerness from the get-go.”

Greg Cwik, Slant: “The whole endeavor feels like a disservice to Hogancamp’s story, in no small part because no one in the film feels human, even outside doll form. Everyone is a type: the pitiable loser for whom we feel bad, the perfect love interest for whom we cheer, and so forth.”

Chris Nashawaty, Ew.com: “…(M)ost of the heartwarming power of Mark’s stranger-than-fiction story is AWOL in its Tinseltown makeover. Steve Carell plays Mark with an uneasy mix of cloying simpleton smiles and just-under-the-surface shell-shock terror that lands firmly on the side of schmaltz.”

Oct 11

“Beautiful Boy”: Teen and Family Fight Addiction

To live with addiction — one’s own or a loved one’s — involves living with uncertainty. It also requires enormous suffering. I’m coming to accept these truths after years of fighting them. The surprise is that the more I accept them, the less I suffer. Quote from David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy, Felix van Groeningen‘s new film based on memoirs by both David Sheff and his son Nic about the latter’s drug addiction (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff, 2008, and Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, 2007) stars Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as father and son. Mother and stepmom are played by Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney.

Beautiful Boy‘s Focus

Brian Truitt, USA Today: “…tracks the downward spiral of a teenage boy’s addiction to meth, the vicious cycle of recovery and relapse, yet also the hope and love waiting on the other side.”

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com:

The film moves back and forth between Nic’s past and present, detailing how this relatively average kid felt he needed bigger and better highs to get through the day. The helplessness of addiction is there in Carell’s weary eyes. The actor deftly conveys how parents can’t do much for teenage addicts, and Chalamet completely captures the cycles of self-abuse often contained in young addicts. Nic gets down on himself for using and so uses to feel better and so crashes again and so uses again—and so on and so on. And David goes through all of the possible approaches, trying to help until he realizes perhaps there’s nothing he can do but be there when his son finally climbs out of his personal hell.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

After a while, we realize that Nic is going to show up, looking a little more zoned-out and disheveled than he did before, and that David is going to do all he can to reach out to him, and that it probably won’t work. Then the cycle repeats itself, in slightly more desperate and harried form.

I wish ‘Beautiful Boy,’ for all its honesty and skill, summoned the power to shock us. Yet part of the film’s strategy is to say that no movie can communicate the true inner essence of the drug life, which is what meth feels like in the bloodstream. That’s a sensation we have to imagine, and so Nic’s immersion in drugs isn’t, for the audience, about experiencing a vicarious high, or even gawking at the lows. It’s about watching a young man drift away from the people who love him because his spirit has gone underground.

A concluding critique from Linda Holmes, NPR: “Chalamet’s charismatic, maddening Nic is spectacular, and the film’s stubbornly unresolved view of loving an addict — its perception of the experience as a grueling, endless walk beside someone — is brutal but feels honest.”

Selected Quotes from Beautiful Boy, the Memoir

Anyone who has lived through it, or those who are now living through it, knows that caring about an addict is as complex and fraught and debilitating as addiction itself.

An alcoholic will steal your wallet and lie to you. A drug addict will steal your wallet and then help you look for it.

At my worst, I even resented Nic because an addict, at least when high, has a momentary respite from his suffering. There is no similar relief for parents or children or husbands or wives or others who love them.

Oct 09

“Freeheld”: A Slice of Lesbian Domestic Partner History

Now showing in larger markets and coming soon to others, Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld is based on the real lives of workplace-closeted Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). When Hester was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they fought (over 10 years ago) for Andree’s right to Hester’s pension benefits. Prevented from achieving this were the county officials known as the “Freeholders.”

This true story, by the way, was previously featured in Cynthia Wade‘s 2007 award-winning documentary of the same title.

Although generally lacking in rave reviews, Rex Reed, New York Observer, is wholeheartedly behind the new film. “It’s a poignant, relevant and beautifully made film that must not be missed by anyone with a heart and a social conscience.”

Representing the other side, Manohla Dargis, New York Times, says it’s “a television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong.”

So, which extreme is it? Probably neither.

As Reed and others have emphasized, this is the role that prompted actor Page to come publicly and poignantly out of her own real-life closet. But with all the recent changes in LGBT rights in this country, how relevant is Freeheld today? Two more opinions that differ widely:

Steve Pond, The Wrap: “…(T)he recent Supreme Court decision didn’t make the film feel like a musty period piece — instead, it seemed to add resonance and immediacy, turning a small victory in one community into the harbinger of greater things to come.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(A)t times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment….(A)n oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen.”

The politics involved, per Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com:

In 2005, when ‘Freeheld’ takes place, New Jersey law allowed people in domestic partnerships to pass on their pensions to their significant others. The law also allowed counties to opt out of such activities. It’s unclear whether the politicians object to Hester because of ‘the sanctity of marriage’ or some compulsive need to not only demand a unanimous vote, but to never reverse any prior vote’s outcome. This latter point is repeated enough times to muddy the waters, especially when one freeholder wants to side with Hester, but doesn’t so as not to break the streak of unanimous votes.

Although Hester isn’t actually an activist for the broader issue of gay marriage, her case is taken up by Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), who is. His performance is widely perceived as “over-the-top” (both The Wrap and Variety and probably others) and “stereotypical gay comic relief” (Hollywood Reporter).

Other noteworthy supporting characters include Michael Shannon as Hester’s sympathetic cop partner and Josh Charles as the only dissenting Freeholder.

The trailer sets up the basics:

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.”

Aug 15

“Hope Springs”: Can Intensive Couples Therapy Help?

The new movie Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as introduced by film critic Carrie Rickey, philly.com:

Kay and Arnold have been wed 31 years. They sleep in separate bedrooms and live parallel lives. When she reaches across the canyon of the breakfast table, he retreats further into his armored shell. When he makes a joke, she hears it as a personal insult. She is miserable. He is oblivious. Can this marriage be saved?

Check out the trailer:

If the above clip suggests a comedy, this is not how it in fact plays out. IMDB labels it both comedy and drama, but the latter is more accurate, I think. This is serious business, a marriage in serious trouble, and a load of serious therapy complete with assigned “sexercises” is headed their way.

And by a load of therapy, I do mean a lot more than most couples would initially seek. Whereas many couples eventually try a weekly hour or so, few would plunk down big money to fly across the country for week-long intensive counseling with a guy who’s written a relevant book that one spouse found in a store after reading a few words on the cover.

Speaking of self-help books, although the book written by Steve Carell’s Dr. Feld and discovered by Kay pre-therapy is not real, his recommendation of Sex Tips For Straight Women From a Gay Manby Dan Anderson, who’s gay, and Maggie Berman, who’s straight—is.

As a shrink Steve Carell plays it clinical and earnest. Arnold’s imagining (in the trailer) of Dr. Feld speaking to his spouse the way he addresses them in therapy is spot-on. Ian Buckwalter of NPR: “Presiding over everything is Carell, who never hams it up as Dr. Feld, a vision of Zen calm with a beatific grin and a voice so soothing it’s like auditory Xanax.”

In addition to Streep and Jones, another of the film’s best features is the realism behind their issues, including how difficult it can be not only to address those issues but to achieve progress. The AARP review emphasizes the film’s significance in this regard and offers some relevant statistics about married couples’ intimacy issues:

Hope Springs is a cinematic breakthrough. It’s the first film I know of that addresses the sexuality of older couples head-on. (I’m ruling out Something’s Gotta Give as too farcical.) In the case of Hope Springs, Kay and Arnold’s sexuality has subsided below a slow burn: They’re marooned in a sexless marriage, a condition by no means unusual in this country. According to the landmark Sex in America survey, about 2 percent of married adults never have sex, and 12 percent are sexual only a few times a year. For argument’s sake, let’s say that means 5 percent of couples do it never or almost never. That’s 1 couple in 20, so pretty much every older adult knows people in a sexless (or nearly so) relationship….

Back to the question of can this marriage be saved? Carrie Rickey (philly.com) recognizes that director David Frankel is actually more concerned with asking how?

…Feld likens his marital tune-ups to the doctors who repair a deviated septum: Got to break the nose in order to fix it.

As the wife whose feelings are right on the surface and the husband whose are in a lockbox, Streep and Jones earned my empathy without asking for it. There are few actors whose body English is as eloquent.

And as a fly on the wall for their characters’ couples therapy and homework, I simultaneously cringed, cried, and cracked up.

Lisa SchwarzbaumEntertainment Weekly, cites the “exquisitely painful, realistic therapy sessions” in her review, and notes that Dr. Feld’s work with the couple “ought to have audiences squirming with uncomfortable self-recognition.”

Justin ChangVariety: “…(I)ts key achievement is its engagement with the mechanics of therapy, the indignities of the aging process, and the characters’ desperate, fumbling attempts to recover something that may be irretrievably lost — scarcely the most fashionable or marketable movie topics, yet scrutinized here at length and without apology.”

In sum, it’s a movie well worth seeing—but only if you don’t mind a good bit of realism along with your romance.