A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a pressure cooker. The heat builds and builds until there is no room to contain it, and it explodes. The film is measured in its pace and heavy with dialogue, but it’s permeated with moments of intense violence. I was disturbed, and yet enthralled. As unsettling as it is, this film’s compelling portrait of human behavior and its strong central character drew me in.

The director, J.C. Chandor, is interested in people who are pushed to their limits. His films traffic in intensity, from the financial crisis in MARGIN CALL to the oceanic survival of ALL IS LOST. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is about Abel Morales, whose livelihood and pride are completely invested in the success of his oil company. Oscar Isaac inhabits this role, his arrogant integrity filling every step and word. Abel tries to follow the “right path,” beating his competitors with his superior ethics. But his field is fraught with violent competition, and his company has suffered a number of truck hijackings during the year.

While Abel strives to maintain the integrity of his business, his employees get beaten and robbed for him. He seems to see them as chessmen caught in an unfortunate bind, but Chandor has a different perspective. The director hides his feelings behind long, provocative close-ups and panoramic views of New York City; but by making the violence against Abel’s employees so up close and personal, he puts their suffering center stage.

I missed this at first. Identifying with Abel’s ambition, intelligence, and integrity, I really wanted him to succeed, to consummate the American Dream. Why did I, bleeding-heart liberal that I am, get so invested in this capitalist notion of success? Because of Chandor’s sleight of hand. By using tight shots and refusing to show his characters’ surroundings, he puts me side-by-side with them. When Abel searches his house at night to investigate a phantom noise, I see only his silhouette, and hear no music. Noise echoes off the side of the screen, creating the unnerving feeling that danger is right around the corner.

As the film shows more on his employees’ suffering, my perspective shifts. A salesman is knocked out and wakes up in the back of a large truck. He can’t see where he’s being taken, and neither can I. Imagining myself in that terrifying situation makes me realize Abel’s livelihood isn’t the only one at stake. His single-minded idea of integrity has trumped everything else, but his success is a crusade with human lives on the line.

I was hoping for some sort of resolution by the end. The violence was so intense, the stakes so high, I wanted something good to come of it. Whether anything does is an open question, but I don’t think that’s what Chandor is concerned with. He’s concerned with the actions of a man whose pride and vision obscure his perspective on reality. Like the great SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, this film is about the choices of a powerful few impacting the lives of the many. Watching it will not make you feel more optimistic about human nature. But you might understand yourself a little better, because there’s a part of Abel in all of us.

Obituary for Robin Williams

Miramax Films

I put off writing this for a while. I’ve been busy with school and other things, and I think maybe I didn’t want to go there. It’s a sad thing when an artist dies. It affects us because we see something of ourselves in him. I’ve felt a loss from Williams’ death, which I may have avoided acknowledging. I’ve been personally and professionally affected by suicide, and it’s not something that ever gets easier to process or understand. It’s sad and frightening and it makes us wonder what could push us to those limits. And it sucks for everyone involved. But it happens, and we have to make sense of it as well as we can.

My first introduction to Robin Williams was in my childhood, most likely in ALADDIN. I fell in love with ALADDIN as every kid my age did, watched it endlessly, and to this day I can still recite much of ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ from memory, along with most of the great Genie lines. ‘That’s right! He can be taught!’ Williams gave ALADDIN its staying power.

I first saw Williams on screen in HOOK and JUMANJI. HOOK is a flawed film, but its acting makes it somewhat viable; Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Bob Hoskins all bring tremendous life to their characters. JUMANJI’s unabashed silliness is a bit harder to defend, but Williams’ performance helps anchor the film. He was an anchor for many family-friendly films, and he always made them fun for everybody.

I saw Williams as a ‘serious actor’ in DEAD POETS SOCIETY and GOOD WILL HUNTING. I saw POETS as a teenager, which made it very touching. I identified with the adolescent sense of oppression at the hands of adults, and the sense of freedom Mr. Keating offers his students through art and poetry. Like Williams’ actual story, POETS teaches the lesson that we must not ignore people’s suffering, we must not turn a blind eye to pain because we’re invested in the status quo.

Williams’ role as a therapist in GOOD WILL HUNTING reaches close to my own heart. As Dr. Sean Maguire, he was unabashedly honest and genuine, which are important qualities for a therapist. Renowned therapists from Carl Rogers to Irvin Yalom have preached openness with patients as a way to effect change. Sean probably gets more invested in Will Hunting than a professional should, but it shows the character’s passion as well as the actor’s. The scenes with them together feel more real than anything else in the movie.

Remembering this performance makes me think about my work as a therapist since I started two years ago. Over-investment is a risk for all of us; leaving my patients behind every day is probably the hardest thing I do. When you take on the responsibility of trying to help someone, you take on the responsibility of modeling hope: hope that change is possible, that their life will become less miserable, and that things won’t continue to get worse than they already are. The latter fear weighs heavily on the mind of every shrink.

Sean actually seemed pretty burned out at the beginning of the film, but Will awoke something in him: the kid’s cocky attitude, growing up in the same rough streets of South Boston, and experiencing the same suffering and abuse at the hands of his father. As Sean treats Will, he starts to feel like he’s speaking to a younger version of himself, saying, ‘All that stuff that happened to you? It’s not your fault.’

We enter this field because we want to help, but we want to help ourselves too. A therapist who has never felt pain probably wouldn’t be very good at his job. But it can be easy to forget that the patient’s pain isn’t our pain. Sean’s investment in Will is well spent, because Will takes responsibility for his life and makes a change. (Real-life psychotherapy seldom works this quickly.) But the final scene with Williams shows how much Sean has lost. It’s not just a patient he’s saying goodbye to.

Williams’ career was full of great performances, and it’s sad there won’t be any more. Suicide opens up endless questions, and it’s difficult to process. Why did this happen? Why did he feel so bad? Why couldn’t he hold on a little longer? I’ve heard Williams had Bipolar Disorder, which may or may not be true, but Bipolar people experience devastating depths of depression. All the same, it makes me angry that he had to go like this. It’s a sad legacy to leave after such a wonderful career, during which he brought so much happiness to so many.

I’ll wrap up by talking about THE FISHER KING. It’s a personal favorite of mine, not least because of Williams’ performance. Parry is a damaged character whose characteristic Williams exuberance covers up some deep wounds. Parry’s shell gradually breaks down and these wounds become more apparent, and we see that his pain is so self-destructive he had no choice but to keep it buried. This character was probably close to Williams’ own soul. In his acting and his comedy, he spread tremendous joy and silliness, and it was impossible not to see him as genuine. But he carried a lot of pain, and in the end it got the best of him. I wish things had gone differently.

As I said at the outset, I’ve been putting off this post. I’m busier than I’ve ever been right now, doing clinical work, taking classes, managing a research lab, and trying to plan my dissertation. During the past few months, I’ve faced some particularly challenging and frustrating clinical experiences, and when I was at my most stressed, it helped me to talk to as many people as possible. I didn’t want to because I wasn’t sure it would actually help, or that I wouldn’t be criticized. Why should I worry about that? I’m a therapist! Well, we can all forget to talk when we get stressed out and feel hopeless. Robin Williams’ death shows that we all need to speak up and let people know when we’re suffering, to get some help and hope.

GONE GIRL review: Spoiled in two words

20th Century Fox

It stinks.

GONE GIRL is a mystery about Amy, who goes missing, and her husband Nick, whose odd behavior leads people to think he had something to do with it, possibly having murdered her. But the reality ends up being much more complicated than that. WARNING: this review is actually full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to hear them, stop reading now. It turns out that Amy left town, framed Nick for her murder, and eventually sought shelter with a rich, possessive ex-boyfriend. Then when he got too possessive, she killed him and returned home. All this because she was dissatisfied with her marriage.

How does that sound? It sounds pretty ridiculous to me. I know a lot of people enjoyed this movie, but I’m not sure why. The whole thing feels like a setup for one ‘Ah-ha’ moment, which was woefully underwhelming, and a gruesome murder scene to follow it. Maybe that’s a bit harsh; it’s a beautifully shot movie, pretty well acted, and the music is great. But this movie is all about its story, and the story is full of holes.

Nick Dunne is a polite, charming Midwestern guy. Like many charming guys, there’s not much to him once you get beneath the surface. And he’s unfaithful. For Amy that’s sin enough to condemn him to death row; instead of getting a divorce, which he in fact wants, she stages an elaborate murder plot. It’s a mind-numbingly complicated plan, which the whole country falls for. But as a viewer, I felt like I was being insulted.

Amy must be smart beyond belief to pull something like this off. She constructs a complete crime scene, anticipating every move of her town’s CSI supercops, and she even manipulates the national media into crucifying her husband. What cunning! But she still manages to get robbed of her bankroll by a couple hicks, which is why she takes shelter with the creepy Desi Collings. Then, seeing an out, she kills him and crawls back to her husband in front of the cameras.

Am I supposed to believe this? Why does North Carthage, Missouri, even have CSI supercops? I live in New York City, and I frankly doubt that homicide police here are as sharp as Detective Rhonda Boney. I guess we’re supposed to accept the seemingly endless budget of North Carthage’s police department because of Boney’s throwaway line towards the beginning of the film about a ‘spike in violent crime.’ Last I checked, most of the violent crime in Missouri is committed by police officers.

Now let’s look at Amy. She is literally a criminal mastermind, which is probably why people like this movie so much, because we’re morbidly fascinated by her. I love gangster movies myself, particularly convincing portrayals of psychopaths. But GONE GIRL is not one of them. It would have us believe that someone as smart, calculating, and ruthless as Amy Dunne spends her time and energy terrorizing her oafish husband, when in reality she would be conning people out of billions of dollars on Wall Street or some such place, and retiring to Boca Raton.

This is why GONE GIRL feels like an insult to my intelligence. I know I’m particularly nit-picky about psychological realism because I’m a therapist, but come on! Her motivation is ridiculous! Film is a director’s medium, but a screenplay is still the soul of a movie. If the director is filming shit material, he’s not going to get a good product. The writer, Gillian Flynn, treats us with kid gloves throughout the whole movie. We’re constantly told what to think, like when Nick’s national television interview is explained to us before we get to watch it ourselves.

The sad part is that the movie starts a lot of interesting conversations, but doesn’t pursue them. The volatility and manipulability of the mainstream media, and their ruthlessness at bothering average citizens. The expectations people bring into relationships, and how disappointment with one’s partner can be interpreted as malicious. And the most interesting character in the movie is probably Desi Collings, who is woefully underdeveloped. When he turned out to be a creeper, I expected the tables to turn on Amy finally. The results disappointed me.

Don’t bother seeing this movie. There are smarter mysteries, scarier thrillers, and chillier psychopaths in movies, if that’s what you’re into. GONE GIRL is a waste of your money and time.

UPDATE: This article at the New York Review of Books makes many of my points in wittier fashion! The conclusion to Heller’s article makes me think of another rebuff to GONE GIRL: it’s like ANTICHRIST without a spine. (Don’t take that to mean that I like ANTICHRIST; I think it’s rubbish too.)


Fox Searchlight Pictures

This movie is nuts. I don’t know what hit me. On the surface, it’s about a washed-up Hollywood actor known for playing a superhero (guess which one) who tries to revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story. Which sounds sort of insane, because this is an insane movie. And I mean that in a good way.

Riggan Thomson…is this guy for real? Does he have powers? Is he crazy? Is he…Birdman? Alejandro González Iñárritu isn’t about answering those questions, he’s just taking us on a ride. The movie is set in and around a Broadway theater, and as the hype says it’s edited into one long tracking shot. Don’t think of it as a style gimmick. There is a spirit, a force, that embodies this movie. Watching it, I felt like I became that force. The camera moved, and I was the camera. I didn’t expect to like this technique, but it worked. Embrace it.

BIRDMAN is perfectly cast. The comparisons that have been made between Michael Keaton and his character are justified, and they make this movie ten times better than it would otherwise be. Keaton has the energy and volatility to portray a desperate, egotistical, fucked-up celebrity, and his own history helps the film resonate. He is Riggan. He is Birdman. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are utterly believable as New York actors, Norton cocky and spoiled, Watts immature and fragile. And Zach Galifianakis practically steals the show as Riggan’s lawyer-agent-best friend. He is hilarious, but as real people are hilarious.

This movie is a window into an unstable mind. Iñárritu has borrowed from some of the best in that genre, notably FIGHT CLUB, but the results are wholly original and funny. The musical score, composed entirely of drum improvisations, is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a movie. It captures Riggan’s kinetic, unstable mental energy. Riggan is completely and utterly disillusioned. He is lost in his own life. I’ve certainly had my share of days waking up thinking to myself, ‘Is this my beautiful house? Is this my beautiful wife?‘ Riggan’s sadness, frustration, and rage are understandable and human.

How he deals with them, you’ll have to see for yourself. This movie kicks ass. Best Actor. I’d say Best Picture, but, y’know, BOYHOOD. See this movie. See it today.


Blindsided by Bergman: WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA

Lopert Pictures

This month’s Blind Spot post covers two Bergman films for the price of one. This experience was a long time coming for me, and I hope you enjoy reading about it. If you haven’t seen the films, watch them! I’d also like to thank my wonderful sister-in-law Caroline Hagood for her feedback on this post.

I’ve just watched my first two Ingmar Bergman films. I don’t know why I took so long to get around to Bergman—or I should say, I don’t know how NYU conferred me a Bachelor of Cinema Studies without forcibly injecting Bergman into my veins. He represents everything mysterious and wonderful about the cinema. Watching Bergman’s films is like taking a trip into the human psyche; conscious and unconscious impulses find their voice on the screen, and they seem to stem from my own thoughts as much as Bergman’s and his characters’. It would be impossible to write about these films without waxing philosophical. If you want to learn about yourself, watch Bergman.

WILD STRAWBERRIES is about Isak Borg, a crotchety professor who is traveling from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree from a university. He had planned to fly with his live-in maid, but after a disturbing nightmare Isak decides on a whim to drive instead. With him comes his daughter-in-law, Marianne, who recently separated from Isak’s son. Over the day’s journey, they visit people and places from Isak’s youth and make the acquaintance of some fellow travelers.

I’m sure countless critics have said this, but WILD STRAWBERRIES is one of the most profound meditations on aging in film. Taking the journey with Isak is like peeling open his mind. Memories unfold and unravel like poetry, revealing Isak’s childhood longings and disappointments, and different causes for his stubbornness and lack of feeling. And Isak’s journey companions awaken long-dormant places in him; a young maiden and her two male friends evoke the masculine strivings of his youth, and the sense of joy and freedom he may have had then. A bitter and unstable middle-aged couple mirror the anger and isolation that spawned Isak’s jadedness in old age. Isak is looking back, seeing where he is and who he has been; he is hoping for some sense of accomplishment and peace.

Towards the end of his journey, Isak and Marianne pay a visit to his elderly mother. The somewhat bland scene is deeply meaningful for understanding Isak. This 78-year-old man seems nothing more than a child in the presence of his mother; he yearns for her affection as she hides behind her orderliness and detachment; when she recalls her memories of Isak, she speaks not from sentimentality, but a meticulous desire to get the details right. For me, traveling with Isak was like being in therapy with him. A seemingly innocuous conversation about a bad dream paves the way for profound ruminations on his childhood, his hopes for his old age, and his profound fear of death. Watching this all unfold on the screen was breathtaking.

PERSONA is a horse of a different color. On the surface the story of a young nurse and her patient, a stage actress who has become mute, this film is a challenging exploration into the boundaries of identity and reality. Before the narrative commences, a montage of confusing and horrifying images floods the screen: a tarantula, a penis, a crucifixion. What do these images mean? As the credits appear, a young, gaunt-looking boy touches a screen depicting a blurry image of a woman. What is he grasping for?

Alma and Elisabet, the nurse and the actress, travel to a doctor’s summer home to relax and recuperate. Elisabet has nothing physically wrong with her, but she has stopped speaking altogether. At the cottage, Alma bares her soul and Elisabet listens silently. A powerful connection seems to grow between them as Alma reveals things she has never told anyone and Elisabet listens with compassion. But there is something a bit off about them. Alma is beginning to unravel, and the patient is becoming the nurse.

As the film’s title suggests, Bergman is concerned with what makes us who we are, or who we appear to be. During these early chapters, I strove to understand the two women, particularly Alma, who did the lion’s share of the talking. The more I learned about her, the more I felt attracted to her vitality, her curiosity about the world. I also longed to know more of Elisabet, who seemed to hide a great deal in her silence. But when tension starts to grow between the two, the alluring comfort of these feelings dissolves. The more I thought I knew them, the further away I was.

Bergman seems to be concerned with the existential fear that comes from truly knowing another person, or even oneself. As Alma and Elisabet challenge each other’s stated identities, they begin to blend together into a single person. Certain scenes—expressions of fear on both women’s faces, Alma’s revelations about Elisabet’s past—feel more like symbolic truths than narrative truths. Bergman is depicting the emotional experience of trying to relate to another person on screen. His montage at the beginning of the film was a warning: abandon all hope of understanding, ye who enter here. Ahead lies only the terror of human existence. At the end of the film, I feel like I know nothing; but the point is to accept not knowing.

WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA are both predominantly concerned with identity, and yet they seem to make opposite points. WILD STRAWBERRIES is about revelation; Isak rediscovers himself in his old age through his memories and his companions. By the end of the film, the viewer shares his feelings of peace and understanding. In PERSONA, all revelations are false. The closer you get to knowing, the harder reality becomes to grasp. Truth becomes ephemeral, and is eventually replaced by terror.

But these films are two sides of the same truth. To live is to be in terror of death, and to accept its inevitability all the same. If Isak was able to make peace with death in his old age, I also feel somewhat more at terms with death after watching PERSONA. The difference in PERSONA is not the lack of resolution it offers its characters; the film’s characters are merely representations. The real subject of PERSONA is you.

BOYHOOD review

IFC Films

This post was a long time coming. I saw BOYHOOD when it was first released at the IFC Center in New York and I wrote about it almost immediately, but I thought I’d try my hand at sending it out for publication. That didn’t work out this time, but I enjoyed the challenge, and I think the piece came out better. See what you think!

BOYHOOD tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from six to eighteen years old, and it was shot over a period of twelve years so that Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) age visibly over the course of the film. I remember hearing about this six or seven years ago and thinking it sounded like a silly idea, but once I saw the trailer I got pretty excited. BOYHOOD surpassed my expectations, and as a chronological experiment it has never been matched.

BOYHOOD has a lot of short scenes because it covers a long time period. I wished each scene were longer, even if it was only Mason walking alone in a park. Every scene is so real, so vital. Richard Linklater and his actors were clearly devoted to their characters, whose visible aging creates a feeling of intimacy that other coming-of-age films don’t match. It made me think back to my own childhood as I watched. I have a lot in common with Mason, so I really identified with him: our parents divorced when we were young, we share an interest in photography and a reputation as ‘the gloomy kid.’

Mason’s story also highlights the common experiences of growing up: school, navigating friendships, young love, and so on. As we watched Mason fight with his sister, talk back to his teacher, and flirt with his first girlfriend, it was like the audience and I were all growing up together. This emotional realism is a hallmark of Linklater’s best films; when I saw DAZED & CONFUSED as a teenager, it felt so real that I thought it was made in the seventies! By avoiding authorial touches in BOYHOOD like on-screen text announcing time and place, or an original score, Linklater makes the world of the film more real.

I saw BOYHOOD at IFC Center in New York and was treated to a Q&A with Linklater and Coltrane, who talked about the writing and filming process. The film was written pretty much year by year, and the more the years went on, the more Coltrane’s development influenced his character’s. Linklater said, ‘That’s not Ellar at all in the beginning, but that’s him at the end sitting on top of the mountain [in the final scene].’ But I wonder how much Coltrane, after embodying this role for so many years, started to become more like Mason. I knew Mason so intimately by the end of the film that when Coltrane walked into the theater, I thought I was looking at the same person.

BOYHOOD works because the people making it were so devoted to what they were doing. Mason’s story wasn’t crafted so that Linklater could make a film over twelve years; the film was made over twelve years because there was no other way to tell this story. As I watched it, Mason and his family became my family, and I still find myself thinking about him and what he might be doing now. How would he live my life if he were me? I want to keep knowing him, but the movie is over and he has moved on. As he is packing his things for college, his mother starts crying because her life has only been a series of milestones. ‘I just thought there would be more,’ she says. Don’t we all?