Tag Archives: Psychological

The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki

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Can we take a temporary hiatus from books about neurotypical protagonists who perceive their Autistic Spectrum siblings as mostly or entirely irrelevant balls and chains in their otherwise perfect lives? I know, I know, the teen overlooked by their parents in favor of their special needs brother or sister, who needs so much more care than they is a story as old as time, to say the least. But how long after the parents are dead can the angst and resentment carry on? Isn’t there a time to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and forgive the sins of your parents, and the overbearing challenges of your disabled sibling?

For me, the Murphy’s realization that no, they might not had it perfect, but it could have been a whole lot fucking worse couldn’t come soon enough. Asif and Lila, two Palestinian/Irish siblings, have always lived in the shadow of their brilliant Asperger’s sister Yasmin. They were in many ways denied a childhood because of their mother’s insistence that they not do anything to set off Yasmin. Now, Mom and Dad are dead and Asif serves as the primary caretaker to Yasmin, a beautiful but painfully awkward teen whose moods fluctuate on the turn of a dime. And Lila… what exactly does Lila do?

She promiscuously fucks around, throws epic tantrums, and is a grade-A cunt to everyone who crosses her path. Of course, she isn’t responsible for any of this. This is all her sister’s fault, for stealing all of Mommy’s love and attention, while she suffered an extended bout of depression and unhappiness. Lila is an infuriating character. I have never met anyone like her, and if I did, I would do something drastic, like throw my sneaker at her. In my limited experience, most people don’t seek out confrontation with complete strangers, but the name of her game is Drama with a capital ‘D.’

I found it impossible to sympathize with Lila, and hard to sympathize with Asif, who is too bland and plays it too safe while being privately self-pitying to be a compelling character. Yasmin is not always likable, but  least you can blame it on her condition, which limits empathy in some (not all) of it’s patients. Lila is a stock Beautiful But Damaged heroine, and her blind boyfriend Henry thinks she’s beautiful inside and out and absolutely wonderful in  every way. Until a scene where Henry goes explosively off which comes out of left field, culminating in angry and abusive sex, Henry is the disability equivalent of the magical Negro, and the male version of the manic pixie dream girl (he’s sensitive! He’s quirky! He’s wonderfully British! He exists to save the self-absorbed little bitch from herself!)

Henry is a completely unbelievable character in the amount of shit he takes from Lila. The scene where he explodes, screams at her, and takes her a rough and loveless fashion (not quite rape, but still) struck false, and serves simply as a way of showing that he wasn’t completely perfect while seeming artificial and icky. As for Yasmin, you’re better off reading “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” as it is more of the same. The subplots of Yasmin having synesthesia  and particularly going blind (which is never fully handled) seem ill-conceived and underdeveloped.

The writing here is decent, so why did I pan it so enthusiastically? After all, it’s not really that bad a book. An acutely observed character detail here, an interesting simile there…. I guess ‘The Way Things Look to Me’ just rubbed me the wrong way. I never warmed up to the characters and their individual dramas, and I had to power through the book while suppressing a groan. Asif and Lila were SO self-absorbed, and Asif continually played the martyr, which made him even more exhausting. Yasmin was the typical robotic, tragically cold and distant savant, and although I was not offended by Farooki’s portrayal of her (which was fairly accurate for some cases) I wish that authors would acknowledge that Asperger’s comes in many forms.

Domestic dramas mostly work when you’re invested in the characters, and that just didn’t happen for me here. I’d also like to point out that while Lila never calls Yasmin a retard, continually referring to her is Raingirl and Miss Spock can be just as pejorative and damaging. As a person with mild Asperger’s Syndrome, I’d also like to say (although this is not the fault of the book, which deals with a more typical case,) many people with AS do feel empathy just as fully for other people.

I found ‘The Way Things Looks to Me’ an angsty and overlong book, chock-full of self-pity, but I don’t not recommend it. It might appeal perfectly to other people, just as one man despises a dish that his companion loves. This review is based more on my personal reaction than the quality of the character development or writing in the book. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoon with these people, so why would I want 338 pages of my time with these people. They’re not even compelling in a macabre, ‘Wasp Factory’-way. But I digress. This is not a book for me. It made me annoyed and exasperated. But it is not terrible, and those would like to read it should, by all means, partake.

Out of the Blue (2006)

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When a character in a mainstream film wields a gun, there is usually a method to his madness. Sometimes he’s a hero, protecting innocent civilians and upholding American values (not sure what that says about us, but whatever) against a villain. A baddie, on the other hand, uses the weapon as the means to an end. He has a plan for revenge, or world domination, or seeks to simply send a message to the good guy that yes, evil will triumph against the benign forces who seek to battle crime. Everything makes sense, at least on the level of indisputable action-movie logic. Everything is simple.

This assumption made by the mass media- that every act of violence has a reason, which can be dissected and fought by an opposing force, is what makes “Out of the Blue” so jarring. Because in the popcorn flick, kids don’t die. Victims are props to be used within the context of a bigger picture. It doesn’t seem so personal. “Out of the Blue” is a movie about a man who goes on a mass killing spree.

He plasters a number of residents in the seaside community of Aramoana, New Zealand; men, women, children, old people, for no fucking reason. He just goes off. That’s it. Now I’m sure in the true story this movie is based on, the shooter, David Gray, had more motivation than what what was initially evident. Family problems, money problems, relationship problems; all that crap. But “Out of the Blue” refuses to focus on the ‘why’ of what makes David Gray tick. Instead, it concentrates on the victims.

Aramoana’s police force’s biggest problem at the beginning of the film is rounding up errant dogs and investigating the apparent theft of ladies panties from David Gray (Matthew Sunderland,) the local weirdo. Kids go to school. Grown-ups go to work. Vacationers go fishing on the pier. Dogs and cats do whatever the hell pets do when their people aren’t home. It seems like a boring, regular day. But this is also the day where something inside small-town outcast David Gray’s brain snaps for the final time. He goes and buys a gun from a local shop, arbitrarily ranting and raving as he goes about his day. No longer will be remembered as David Gray, pervert and pantie raider. Things are going to go down in a big way.

It’s obvious that director Robert Sarkies has developed more of a sense of technical verve since his feature film debut, “Scarfies.” “Out of the Blue” is a taut, studied meditation on human nature, the good and the bad of it. Police officer Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) goes about an ordinary day, dealing with ho-hem pedestrian problems . Sweet old lady Helen Dickson (Lois Lawn) sees her grown son Jimmy (Timothy Barlett) off to work, completely ignorant of the fact that she will show uncommon bravery and soon be considered a hero by the media. Garry Holden (Simon Ferry) prepares to tell he and his girlfriend’s kids that they’ve gotten engaged.

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It would be easy to go for nihilism in a story like this, but to take a ‘fuck humanity, we’re gross’ approach would be a disservice to the people who had their lives taken from them or altered forever in the carnage. Instead, we see the mad contrast between human ugliness and the redemptive power of the spirit. As David shoots up the town, a woman risks her life to pull her pet goat into the house. Now that’s the fucking human condition there. One person shoots indiscriminately at unarmed civilians, one person goes out of her way to rescue a farm animal. We’re cut from the same cloth, but we’re by no means the same. Some of us might as well be a different species all together.

Meanwhile, elderly Helen, who recently had hip replacement surgery, proves herself to be a bigger badass than anyone could have imagined. And while I usually feel weirdly sorry for mentally ill murderers, David Gray was making me involuntarily yell at the screen “Kill him, kill him, kill him!” in futile exasperation. And the end? What he got was too good for him. The acting is suitably outstanding from all, even the nonprofessionals (are we sure this was Lois Lawn’s first and only film role?) Karl Urban talks with his eyes in what is probably one of the most heart-wrenching performances of recent years.

Among the bloodshed, we do get to see some beautiful footage of New Zealand and we are offered beautiful shots of the mundane serenity of daily life. The steady, unblinking look into everyday existence contrasted with unthinkable violence is kind of like Haneke, if Haneke didn’t hate the fuck out his characters. I did think the movie was a little too long and tended to meander a bit too much (with lots of unnecessary shots of Garry’s burning house) but that is pretty much the only complaint. The other is that as desensitized as I am, this movie made my stomach flutter with anxiety and my heart hurt.

People who constantly bitch about even the most reasonable gun control laws need to watch this movie. It could just as well be called “Why Crazy People Shouldn’t Have Guns.” Background checks? Unfathomable! Then this happens, and this country says it’s going to change, but it doesn’t. The problem is, people who push the right for every man to have a gun his his hand and his other hand down his pants to wank at his power trip probably don’t want to watch a movie about the actual consequences of violence.

“Out of the Blue” is super realistic, even agonizingly so. But it’s an important watch, and a achingly well-made movie on it’s own terms. The actors are portraying the victims stories like it’s their last role on earth, and breaking our hearts in the process. It takes it’s place for me as my second favorite New Zealand film (nothing beats “What We Do in the Shadows,” guys!) and one of the only films that truly disturbed and shocked me in recent times. But there is a meaning behind the violence, one that unfortunately will fail to reach those who need it most. I recommend this for everyone who likes movies as art as well as entertainment, and even more to those who like social commentary in their filmmaking. This s what Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” tried and failed to be, a truly profound statement on human nature and gun violence.

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Benny’s Video (1992)

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Benny is fourteen years old. As you can guess from the title, he loves watching videotapes. He is the kind of quiet kid of whom his friends’ parents would say, “Benny’s so polite, Benny’s so well-spoken.” He is also a glib sociopathic killer with no mercy or compassion for anyone, a state of mind that is exacerbated by his constant barrage of violent movies. When Benny does the unthinkable, his well-to-do intellectual wannabe parents (especially his dad) treat the crime as the equivalent of a C- in algebra.

Mom and Dad are willing to protect their cretin son at all costs for the sake of their all-important reputation, but Benny ensures that he will have the last laugh in this chilling psychological horror film. “Benny’s Video” is typical Haneke; if you’ve seen any of Michael Haneke’s films, you know that means disturbing violence, static shots of absolutely nothing happening, and pointed social commentary about the effects of continual media consumption with no regard for reality.

I did find this to be significantly better than “Funny Games,” it seems to me it was a little less obvious than that film, and has more of a black humor element as Benny’s parents act bewilderingly blase about Benny’s shattering act of violence. They’re rich entitled douchebags that would implode if they acknowledged Benny had a problem, let alone that he was a remorseless killer who attributed no value to human life.

The actors do an amazing job, especially Angela Winkler as Benny’s conflicted mother. Arno Frisch ratchets up the dark and twisted as a good-looking and outwardly ordinary boy without a human bone in his body. The strangest character, though, proves to be the father played by Ulrich Muhe, who initially seems to be an ineffectual nerd but inside has the heart of a killer not unlike his son’s.

“Benny’s VIdeo” is chock-full of deeply unnerving imagery and sound effects- a woman’s hysterical sobbing as her son lies calmly on the bed next to her, stripped down to his underwear, the thrashing and screams of a pig being slaughtered in a tape watched again and again for the viewer’s enjoyment, and a young girl’s ear-piercing cries as she is shot repeatedly with a bolt gun. The images are provided not to titillate, but to depict what a existence without love and remorse might be like, and the consequences of such a half-life.

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We are also provided with commentary about media violence and how children without stability or natural empathy can be sucked in and seduced by gruesome celluloid images. Benny falls asleep to such stimulus every night, and although the bloody entertainment isn’t the only thing that’s driving him bonkers, it doesn’t seem to be doing him any favors.

Haneke has an extremely unique way of shooting his scenes. Take the part where Benny murders a girl his age who was ill-advised enough to follow him into his apartment, for instance. Most of the scene is shown through a television within the film filming the act as the onlooker watches. You can see hardly anything, and the majority of the killing occurs teasingly outside the frame. But it’s ten times more disturbing than most Hollywood violent sequences that are exponentially more bloody.

Listening to the girl shriek and kick her legs while Benny mumbles almost pleadingly, “Quiet. Quiet” is horrific, while Haneke proves you don’t have to show close-up shots and zoom in eagerly on the violence taking place to provide a truly unnerving scene. In the process, he shows that showing more of a sadistic murder taking place can actually have a desensitizing effect, rather than one evoking power or emotion.

I like Haneke’s movies but I wouldn’t want to meet him in person. I think I would be intimidated by him. “Benny’s Video” is a lot better than “Funny Games” because it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being hit over the head with a message (the message of “Benny’s Video” is much more nuanced than you might expect, considering the fervent commentary on media violence and it’s adverse effects on our youth.)

You have no characters breaking the fourth wall, no villains actually rewinding the scene to change the outcome- just a bleak, unsparing look at human evil and it’s consequences. Note the scene where Benny shows his victim the video of the pig being slaughtered. Rather than be disgusted or morally offended, she states flatly, “It’s snowing.” By painting a picture of disaffected youth at their most horrifying, Haneke also casts a lingering look into depravity and the contemptuous entitlement that exists within the upper middle class.

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Electricity by Ray Robinson

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Lily O’Connor’s neurology is a wild, untamed beast that knocks her on her face time and again. Afflicted with epilepsy, Lily knows the condition is more than the general public believes it be, and she determined to live as normal a life with the condition as possible. Saddled with a rough (and I mean rough) family (her mother is entirely to blame in causing the injury that led to her disorder, in an act too ghastly to mention,) Lily has learned to hide the hurt away, armed with a misanthropic wit. But the death of her beastly mother, grouped with the arrival of her gambler brother and the mystery of another sibling’s disappearance, shakes up Lily’s life in ways she never could have imagined and sends her on a quest for reconciliation on the dirty, chaotic streets of London.

So, apparently this is a movie now. It’s hard to picture how a film adaptation would work, to be honest. Electricity is a otherworldly experience, an journey through the senses shedding light on a condition no one would wish on themselves or their loved ones. How will a movie give us such an unyielding look into this woman’s mind? How will a movie explain how the seizures feel? But the miracle of this novel is that Lily O’Connor is so much more than her disability.

She’s tough, complicated, seriously flawed but fundamentally decent. The strength of Lily’s character ensures that Electricity will not a textbook slog through issues of disability and dignity. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read so much onomatopoeia in one book. The book has an interesting feminine perspective on sexuality, as well as a heartbreaking take on sexual abuse (what if I didn’t fight back! What if I liked it?)

Lily believed she was in love with her mother’s boyfriend when she was about nine years old, and appreciated the attention in a time when she was all too often ignored and overlooked. But does that make it any better? Of course not. Sexual misconduct with a preteen is abuse whether or not the child thinks they enjoy it or not. In a way, Lily has to move past her own feelings and perceptions about the event just as much as she has to move past the abuse itself.

Lily is often a hard character to like. But you can’t hate her. You just can’t. She’s too vulnerable and damaged and real for that. However, the circumstances of her upbringing seemed a little too dire at times. That coupled with her truly horrific experience with men (only her wig-donning mentor, Al, emerges unscathed) makes Electricity a sometimes disturbing read. Lily is an often sexually ambiguous character; she reports to enjoy sex with men (although she can’t climax,) while her less-than-sisterly affections for her lesbian buddy Mel makes the reader wonder what side of the fence she’s really on.

The only parts of the book I felt were lacking were the sex scenes between Lily and her boyfriend, Dave. Here we are subjected to analogies such as “He licked my breasts like lollipops” that fall short on insight into a woman’s experience of sex. They were a little corny, to be frank. They didn’t quite fit in the otherwise smooth, flawless jigsaw puzzle that was this novel. Mostly, what stands out in Electricity was the close inside view of a misunderstood condition and Lily’s unique, dialect- and profanity-salted voice. Lyrical yet not tweedy, Electricity is a engrossing read.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

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Being an identical twin can be murder. Just ask Niles Perry, a well-mannered thirteen-year-old whose twin brother Holland possesses a sadistic streak and a penchant for causing deadly ‘accidents.’ Niles both loves, fears, and is in intense awe of his enigmatic brother, but all is not what it seems in Thomas Tryon’s Gothic psychological horror novel.

I had a rocky start with this novel, because I kept on wondering how Niles could not suspect his brother of wrongdoing. I was relieved to find, however, that the (cleverly wrought) twist midway through the book rendered these concerns obsolete. If Niles seems outrageously naïve, that just makes the revelation all the more effective.

Novelist Thomas Tryon evokes the homey mystique of a 30’s Connecticut farming town. Pequot Landing, as it so happens, is an idyllic place to grow up for children who are independent and reasonably well-adjusted, because of the freedom such a locale offers (kids can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, within reason,) but the stifling gossip of the town ladies also makes it important to tread carefully while within earshot of anyone who might decide they want your family problems as fodder for discussion.

For the Perry’s, for which insanity seems to  run in the family, the continual stream of hearsay is never-ending. If you can get by Tryon’s penchant for long, elaborate, needlessly wordy sentences, ‘The Other’ might prove to be your new favorite creepy-cool summer read. You might be surprised that despite the fact that it was published in 1971, it’s aged quite well and doesn’t seem watered-down in terms of horror by jaded modern standards.

There are deaths a-plenty in “The Other,” and the one that bothered me most (even more than the particularly taboo murder at the end) was the demise of elderly widow Mrs. Rowe. Damn it she just wanted to have some tea and lemonade with the local children! Why must the lonely old bird be treated so? :_(

“The Other” makes you think about what people do to keep their loved ones out of the mental health system, and how that initial act of mercy can prove to be destructive later on. Doesn’t the boys’ Russian grandmother, Ada, know her grandson is a raving lunatic? Of course she does. But she refuses to anticipate the consequences of keeping such a boy at home with her, and her naiveté is punished tenfold.

I’ve heard of people whose family members continually lashed out at them; people who’s loved ones had to be locked in their room at night. In the end, the decision lies with the caregiver, but sometimes it’s not only easier, but kinder just to let go. This is an extreme version of a situation many people deal with- the seemingly impossible challenge of loving and caring for a severely emotionally disturbed child.

Ultimately, I think Tryon is too hard on old Ada. Yes, it was her ‘game’ that led to much of the insanity in the first place. But she is only human. And If the game had never came to be? What? Tragedy may have been avoided, but sociopathy and madness still ran thick in the Perry’s blood. While Ada’s final act seemed somewhat out of character, it was a decision born of extreme desperation, not evil or cruelty.

Although I found Niles annoying throughout (though he seemed surprisingly less so after I found out the twist,) I thought ‘The Other’ was a chillingly rendered, deliciously Gothic read. I love those kind of Gothic stories involving family secrets and sequestered craziness, so this was right up my alley. Now I want to rent the movie.

Short Term 12 (2013)

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A foster care center for at risk teens doesn’t seem like a setting for a movie about hope and redemption, but “Short Term 12,” a vividly realized and, above all, spectacularly real independent gem, finds beauty and human decency in unexpected places. The cast is so adept at slipping into these roles the filmmaker has created that they feel more like real people than characters in a movie, and you find yourself aching for their respective happy endings.

Grace (Brie Larson) is a grounded but damaged supervisor at a foster care facility, who is haunted by memories of her sexually abusive father but tries her best to make the kids’ at the homes stays as comfortable as possible. Compassionate but tough-minded, she is shown the beginning of the film guiding a new employee (Rami Malek) on his first day at the center.

Grace is being courted by Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.,) a happy-go-lucky co-worker who wants to help her move past her trauma. Grace soon recognizes a fellow victim of abuse in Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever,) an out-of-control adolescent dumped on the center by her uncaring dad, but must get past the uncaring bureaucracy to help the girl find her voice and testify against her abuser.

Subplots include Marcus (Keith Stanfield,) an urban teenager clinging to the support system of the foster home, and Sammy (Alex Calloway,) who has a penchant for attempting to run like hell from the facility and forcing its employees to chase him across the grounds. These characters are sensitively acted and realistically presented. “Short Term 12” also features a honest, nonexploitive portrayal of the lasting scars that come with surviving an abusive childhood.

The teens in the film are not sentimental or mawkish- they are often defiant, angry, and even violent, but director Destin Cretton shows genuine compassion for their individual dramas. I have a special preference for Marcus- he’s a well-intentioned young man trying to keep his head above water when the system deems him an adult and decides to throw him out of it’s relative comfort.

“Short Term 12” has almost a documentary feel; not a moment is wasted in this beautifully directed and acted independent film, and even a rather reckless act committed by Grace at the end manages not to be entirely out-of-character. It makes you care about its characters, incorporating fantastic performances from each and every cast member. I recommend it for any and all who are interested in the welfare of children, the resilience of  adults, or the inner workings of the human mind.

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The Voices (2014)

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Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) is the kind of man no one would suspect of any wrong doing- well-groomed, mild-mannered, and charmingly naïve and uncomplicated, he gets along with all his co-workers at the bathtub factory at which he works, and lives a comfortable life with his cat and dog in the podunk town of Milton.

But Jerry has deep-seated problems- problems that stem from his Schizophrenic mother, his abusive stepfather, and his own out-of-control fantasies and delusions that manifest themselves in voices and often comforting, if woefully misleading, visions. Like many mentally ill people, Jerry finds that all the color is drained from his life when he takes the zombifying pills his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) prescribes.

But Jerry has a secret. It’s not that shocking that Jerry talks to his pets (Hell, doesn’t everybody?) But his animals have been particularly vocal lately. His cat, especially, has been known to push him to the edge. And Mr. Whiskers has an agenda- an agenda that turns downright murderous after Jerry accidently kills his indifferent love interest Fiona (Gemma Arterton) in a fit of panic.

Mr. Whiskers is insistent that Jerry kill again, but Jerry’s lovable mastiff, Bosco, tries to convince Jerry to live a morally righteous life. Jerry’s descent into madness is both wickedly funny, fairly disturbing, and oddly touching. “The Voices,” helmed by the graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (‘Persopolis,”) is an offbeat morality tale about the pressures of being a ‘good boy’ Vs. giving in to your inner sociopath.

The script is convoluted, and downright ridiculous at times- the deer scene will make you laugh if you aren’t too busy cringing at the copious gore. But it’s all part of the blackly comic vision screenwriter Michael R. Perry has offered up on screen for us. “The Voices” is also visually striking; there’s a distinct contrast between the beauty, presented up in rich hues that makes up how Jerry sees the world and the dank, dark reality of Jerry’s bloodstained apartment.

Ryan Reynolds gives a commendable performance as Jerry, an upbeat man-child with a homicidal streak, and disturbingly, you’re forced to sympathize with his earnest if deranged worldview, and thus, to some extent, his crimes. Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are also voiced by Reynolds, which makes perfect sense, being that they are quite literally extensions of Jerry himself.

Considering the talent that is on display here, the totally WTF ending is regrettable to say the least. It’s like the writer went ‘what the hell’ after days of writer’s block, got high, and quickly scrawled down an ending with no real cohesion or connection to the rest of the story. Why not have a big song and dance sequence at the end of your horror film? Add Jesus? What the hell! We don’t see enough of that guy these days anyway.

For people who wanted an actual conclusion to Jerry’s story, that you know, made any kind of sense whatsoever, the ending will be a huge disappointment. Simply put- this is not a great movie. But it is the kind of movie I like to watch, off-the-chain and quirkily, even shallowly psychological, so I’m bound to cut it more slack than some people might.

For those viewers who set their expectations (reasonably) low and prepare for a stinker of an ending, for those movie lovers who like their comedies pitch-black and all kinds of twisted, The Voices” might turn out to be a strangely gratifying experience. Because like poor Jerry Hickfang, we all see the world the way we want to see it. But unlike Jerry, most of us are unwilling to kill for that vision.

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Birdman (2014)

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They say “Everyone’s a critic,” and this seems to be especially true for film fans. What fan-boys and -girls of all ages often seem to forget is that the movie star is a person just like us, with feelings and faults- they eat, drink, shit, screw, and breathe just like us, they are not above being selfish and rude upon occasion (therefore I urge you not to take it personally if they decline an autograph,) and they feel hate and rejection from the audience like a regular person being criticized for they manner in which they do what they love.

However, the internet seems not to take a middle ground on celebrities- either they can do no wrong in the fanboys’ eyes or he cuts them down to size with the ruthless efficiency of a horror-film slasher. And in a society where well-liked actors are respected more than law enforcement officers, men fighting for our country, humanitarians and hospital personnel, the margin for error is small. People cannot believe it when an actor says something unbecoming or adverse to the ‘image’ they are trying to build (consider when Jennifer Aniston used the ‘R’ word and the ensuing backlash.)

When a actor has a certain squeaky-clean persona, people believe in that persona even if that performer seems to be less than who they appear to be. When Bill Cosby was accused of multiple counts of rape, no one would believe it; suddenly the victims were attention seeking ‘hos whereas it might have been considered differently if the accused was Joe-Bob across the street. Certainly some women have been known to lie about rape, but at what point is the evidence just too incriminating?

On the other hand, actors that have been considered to be ‘flops’ can’t catch a break- attacks on celebrities, particularly female celebrities whose figures and faces have been deemed unpleasing to the eye by the masses, often get extremely personal. Actors get defined by that one role that made them famous, look at poor ‘Chandler’ and the rest of the “Friends” alumni (except for a select few that have been able to stake out roles of consequence in other movies.)

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Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) is Birdman. That is the role he is certainly known for; nobody remembers him in anything else, and no one certainly cares to. For Riggan, a mentally disturbed has-been with delusions of grandeur featuring an incarnation of his iconic character, life is a constant struggle to prove that he is capable of diversifying- that he can, and will, rise above his 90’s role that people have learned to love and hate him for.

With an estranged ex (Amy Ryan) and a mouthy daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone,) Riggan’s life is definitely not easy. But while writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, he believes he can rise above what people expect of him. When his costar (Jeremy Shamos) suffers an injury onstage, the pretty starlet (Naomi Watts) offers her narcissistic, impotent douchebag boyfriend, Mike, (Edward Norton) the man’s role.

Riggan and Mike clash immediately, sometimes to hilarious effect. But for the most part, “Birdman” is a dark, depressing (albeit sometimes comedic) look into one man’s delusional wreck of an existence. Most of the movie is filmed in one continuous shot, with the camera following the characters around the broken-down theater. There’s a vibe of intrusion and invasion of privacy, the cast of Riggan’s play packed together like sweaty, discontented sardines and constantly bursting into each others rooms without invitation. This contributes to the films message about the price of fame- suddenly, your life is everyone else’s.

To some extent, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are playing extreme versions of themselves, or at least the public’s’ image of themselves. Keaton is a bit of a has-been (this movie might change that,) mostly remembered for the title role in “Batman,” playing the character that Christian Bale is now famous for. Norton is known as a bit of a prima donna who micromanages the film he’s performing in’s dialogue, and while hopefully he’s not as much of a major arsehole as his character is, it can’t be an accident that Mike pompously tries to dissect the script at the expense of Riggan’s vision.

“Birdman” has a great ensemble cast which also includes Merritt Wever and Zach Galfianakis (God only knows how to pronounce that man’s name,) as Riggan’s passive and deceitful lawyer. Overall it is a darkly funny yet sad and bleak commentary on entertainment Vs. art, pretension, and the nightmare who to some is family.  However, director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2006 film “Babel” is the much better movie and I think it should have gotten far more attention than it did, the whole thing (especially the plot thread about the deaf Japanese girl) was incredible. “Birdman” was, admittedly, the less compelling work.

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Paperhouse (1988)

When I was a little girl, my younger brother and I were convinced if we strapped enough household wires to each other and fell asleep in the same bed, we could meet each other in our dreams. Of course, my mom told us it was impossible, but that didn’t stop us from trying. Children with my wild imagination and faith in the impossible would love the concept of “Paperhouse.”

Of course, “Paperhouse” has a very adult angle that makes it, ultimately, best for grown-ups. 11-year-old Anna (Charlotte Burke,) who is at that age where kids mouth off to their elders and will pick a fight over absolutely anything, faints in school on her birthday and is discovered to have a raging fever.

Bizarrely, when Anna faints, she discovers that when she’s unconscious or asleep, she enters a world entirely unlike her own- to be precise, to a remote house she has drawn before her dizzy spells began. In the house she meets a boy, physically handicapped Marc (Elliot Speirs, who died at a tragically young age,) who bears startling similarities to a boy with muscular dystrophy who Anna’s doctor (Gemma Jones) is seeing, and who Anna has never met outside to dream world.

Anna’s unspoken issues with her well-meaning but hard-drinking father (Ben Cross) show up too when a fictional recreation of dad shows up at Anna and Marc’s secret hideaway, raging, evil, and wielding a hammer. Caught between wakefulness and forever sleep by her life-threatening fever, Anna must fight for her sanity and her life, as well as the life of her newfound friend.

Contrary to certain opinions, I found the acting in this to be quite effective, from most of the child players as well as the adults. The kids aren’t always the best, but what do you expect with newbies to the craft? Despite her brattiness, I didn’t find Anna to be an unlikable character- actually, I saw her as a bright and willful child struggling to cope with a childhood harder than most.

The psychological angle here is really fascinating- Anna’s mostly loving if distant father becomes a malformed monster in her dreams, while her mother (Glenne Headly) fails or refuses to see her husband’s alcoholism and the rift between him and their daughter. It resounded with me for entirely personal reasons, and I loved the entertaining yet insightful script.

The set pieces here are also magnificent, and this movie has one of the scariest and most memorable dream sequences I’ve ever seen, the kind of thing that haunts the nightmares of any children unfortunate enough to watch it. The score, however, is mediocre- mostly typical 80’s movie music.

“Paperhouse” is an entertaining and  underrated gem of the 80’s, and although it’s not full blood horror, it has enough unnerving moments to make it ‘light horror’ for people who don’t like really intense scary movies. Although it’s not available as yet on Netflix, it’s totally worth getting online if you have a DVD player that will play it. This is a great film about childhood dreams or fears around the lines of “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Coraline,” and definitely worth checking out. 

Foxcatcher (2014)

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A grim psychological study of co-dependency and decompensation, “Foxcatcher” features two profoundly against-type performances from Hollywood A-listers.  Steve Carrell, star of light comedies like “Get Smart” and “The Office” and occasionally slightly darker fodder like “The Way, Way Back” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” portrays the real-life millionaire aristocrat John Du Pont, an exorbitantly rich man-child pressed under the thumb of a domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and struggling with his own demons.

When Du Pont offers to endorse up and coming wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, in another unusual performance,) it seems to Schultz, the strong, silent type, like a match made in heaven- at last he will make a name for himself and stop being regarded merely as an extension of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo,) who also wrestles competitively. To the viewer, it seems weirdly abrupt… Du Pont spirits Schultz off to his mansion to and introduces him to ‘Team Foxcatcher,’ a group of fighters that Du Pont plans to shape into an unbeatable team and send to the nationals.

For a greasy, apparently limited individual, Du Pont sure can be a manipulative sonofabitch, and Carrell plays him with a mix of childish mania and snakelike bile. “Foxcatcher” is arresting in it’s build-up. You watch Carrell, muscles tensed, waiting for him to snap like a brittle branch, but up until the finale you are unsure of why you feel this way. Schultz has serious issues of his own, and anyone who dismissed Channing Tatum as a vacuous pretty boy  up until now will be wowed by his powerhouse performance.

I’ve never seen such duel performances exuding desperation since Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan in Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur.” I couldn’t help see somewhat homoerotic overtones in the relationship between John Du Pont and Mark Schultz. The way Du Pont treats Schultz is reminiscent of an abusive marital relationship, with Du Pont manipulating Schultz with promises of greatness and cutting him off from the only person who loves him, his brother Dave.

The movie is sometimes reminiscent of Haneke in it’s minimalism (without the utter clinical iciness of Haneke’s films,) with a touch of Hitchcock by way of “Psycho,” but the story it tells is all too real. I ended up feeling for all the characters and despairing for their extreme loneliness.

I’m frankly surprised this film played at the theater; it doesn’t have near the mainstream appeal of something like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s the kind of movie that would probably barely get a release if not for the big names who agreed to play in it. Nonetheless, it is a must-watch for independent film fans and people who like think during a movie rather than just react to the obvious implications of what’s on screen.

Don’t watch “Foxcatcher” for the wrestling; there isn’t as much as a fan of the sport might like to think. Ultimately it’s almost as much about the death of the sport as it is about isolation and desperate circumstances. Watch the cage match at the end of the movie and you’ll see what I mean. “Foxcatcher” is a surprising movie with outstanding performances, and while it’s not a film you would, say, take your kid to, it’s very worthy of praise and deserves all the awards it gets.

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