Tag Archives: Psychology

Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

januaryfirst2

Rating: B-/ I feel weird criticizing this book. The author has obviously been to hell and back, so pointing out his shortcomings feels a bit like kicking a puppy. January First is the alternately powerful and frustrating true story of the writer’s five-year-old daughter’s horrific struggle with childhood Schizophrenia and her subsequent diagnosis and treatment. The little girl, January, initially seems to be hugely creative and imaginative, and has a host of imaginary friends at her disposal. Later her father Michael discovers that the ‘imaginary friends’ are in fact paranoid hallucinations who, although sometimes comforting, force January to act out violently against her parents and baby brother, Bodhi. Continue reading Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

Advertisements

Book Review: The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg

thepullofthe-moon

Rating- B/ A deceptively simple, brief little novel, The Pull of the Moon is the lyrical yet straightforward story of Nan, a fifty-year-old housewife who takes a hiatus from the monotony of her everyday life and goes on an aimless road trip in hopes of ‘finding herself.’ The book, told in the form of Nan’s letters to her husband Martin and her intimate journal entries, is not particularly rife with surprises but contains a peculiar charm and grace all it’s own. Continue reading Book Review: The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg

Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

Infinitely-Polar-Bear-movie

Rating: B/ Filmmaker Maya Forbes’ heart tugging, affectionate autobiographical tale stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a perennial screw-up and the manic-depressive father of two little girls, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) and Amelia ( Imogene Wolodarsky, the filmmaker’s own daughter.) When we first meet Cam, it is the winter of 1978, and he is in the midst of a manic episode, running around in the freezing cold in his skivvies and terrorizing his family, who then lock themselves in the car in fear. Later he is hospitalized and put on heavy medication that makes him shuffle, fat and complacent, around the halls of the mental hospital. Continue reading Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

Film Discussion: Spider (2002)

spiderpsposter

Rating: A-/ ***Warning- This is more of a comprehensive discussion of the film Spider than a actual review. Spoilers should be expected.*** First off, I adore Ralph Fiennes. I really just love the guy. I think he’s one of the best (if not actually the best) actors of today. I just rediscovered the greatness of Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic thriller Spider, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about why I think Spider was one of Fiennes’ best performances and one of his most daring film endeavors. I’m also going to discuss what made Spider so great and look at the layers of meaning the psychology of this film provides. Let this be my last warning; this is going to be a spoiler laden post. If you haven’t seen this film yet and want to, avoid this review like the plague. Thank you.

When we first meet Spider (Ralph Fiennes) as he gets off a train, he seems very small and vulnerable, one of society’s undisputed outcasts. Nicotine-stained fingers, raggedy old coat, stubbly, bewildered face- he looks like he wishes he cold just sink into the ground and disappear. We can also see clear as day that not all is right with him psychologically, as he continually mutters incomprehensibly to himself (turn on your subtitles!) and doesn’t seem totally cognizant of his surroundings. He’s definitely out of his element, and rightfully so- Spider has just been released from an insane asylum that he was committed to since childhood, and is being placed in the care of Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave,) a crusty old woman who owns a halfway house for the mentally disturbed.

The house could use a spruce-up and Mrs. Wilkinson could use some work on her bedside manner. She treats the patients like naughty children who constantly need to be berated and told off. Spider begins reexamining events that placed him in the care of the state by becoming an ‘observer’ of his childhood, following his boy self around the familiar streets of his youth and sitting in on conversations between people that occurred at that time, and some that didn’t. This is where the brilliance of this movie lies, for as soon as we are introduced to his parents (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne) we are immediately placed in the shoes of an unreliable narrator. While his mum is long-suffering, beautiful, and kind, his father Bill is a philandering alcoholic and all around jerk who Spider competes with for the affections of his mother.

In a series of events that young Spider couldn’t possibly have been present for, we find that Dad is screwing a local floozy named Yvonne (also played by Miranda Richardson) and that they kill Spider’s saintly mother when she catches them making it in the garden shed. These scenes, and the subsequent scenes where Yvonne takes Mrs. Cleg’s place as Spider’s new ‘mother,’ are ludicrously over-the-top and almost cartoonish in nature. Juxtaposed with the hyperrealistic scenes where Spider himself is present, these parts seem to make no sense unless you take them at face value- that Spider is making them up. That they came out of the mind of a naive, inexperienced, and mentally ill man who has spent most of his life in an institution.

spider2

Yvonne (despite being played by the same actress who played the mother) is slutty, coarse, and rendered with make-up and costume design to be actually fairly unattractive. The infinitely well-meaning Mrs. Cleg is superior in every way to this common street whore; of this Spider is convinced. So he sets out to murder Yvonne by turning the gas stove on as she sleeps, only to find he has murdered his mother and ‘Yvonne’ as he knows her never existed. Yes, maybe he was jokingly flashed by a woman similar to his incarnation of Yvonne (in fact, ‘Flashing Yvonne’ is played a by a whole different actress than Richardson, Allison Egan) and his mind did the rest of the work. Building upon this event he created the ultimate harlot, the woman who would stand by as his dad killed his mom and insist he call her ‘mother.’

So what do I think? I think Spider’s oh-so-virtuous mother became alcoholic and bitter, creating ‘Yvonne’ in his mind and causing him to believe that his dad murdered his mom and replaced her with an uncaring, promiscuous duplicate. Spider obviously has the hots for his mom on some subconscious level, brushing her hair and watching her put on make-up adoringly and eyeing her as she tries on a slinky nightgown. She became boozy and hard due to her marital problems with her husband and his love of going to the Dog and Beggar and drinking. Someone had to be blamed, and the issue had to be put in more black-and-white terms so Spider could understand it.

There’s only one thing about this movie that confuses me, and that’s the scene where Spider’s in a restaurant looking at a picture of a green Yorkshire field. Suddenly he’s standing in a field identical to the one in the picture,  hanging out with a couple of old men who don’t particularly seem to have their mental faculties. I think that he met the men at the asylum (I believe one of these guys was the one wielding a piece of broken glass in the flashback.) He imagined them in a grassy field and used some of the dialogue he had heard from them in the scenario. I’m also very curious whether Spider realized what he had done to his mother (he does refrain from braining Mrs. Wilkinson, who he imagines as Yvonne, with a hammer) or whether the big reveal was just a tip-off to the audience and Spider is as lost as ever.

I don’t think it should be surprising to you that Ralph Fiennes is incredible in this movie. He shows a gift for portraying debilitating mental illness with a nuanced sleight of hand that is not generally present in these kinds of performances. So that’s it. I’ve explained why I think Spider is one of the more complex psychological thrillers I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve offered some explanation to the meaning of the events presented in this movie. Liked this discussion? Have any thoughts? Want me to write another like it? Stop by and tell me in the comments!

spider

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

we_need_to_talk_about_kevin1

Rating: B/  Oh, Franklin. you should have worn the damned condom!

Okay, so maybe Eva Khachaturian wasn’t meant to be a mother. But is she responsible for making her son a monster? Society seems to think so. In the wake of a horrific attack orchestrated by Kevin, a sadistic fifteen-year-old psychopath, Eva (Tilda Swinton) is heckled on the street and sometimes outright attacked by people who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.

    In a swirl of fever dream-like memories, past becomes present, and Eva remembers when her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and kids Kevin and Celie (Ezra Miller and Ashley Gerasimovich) were still with her. Eva never seemed to really want Kevin, a vile, evil, perpetually incontinent child turned killer teen who mind-fucked his mother from a very early age, but the real question is whether Eva could stop the direction her son was going.

   Franklin, a happy guy in denial of Kevin’s true nature, condemns Eva for not connecting with her little moppet, and Kevin simultaneously gaslights Eva and turns Eva and her well-meaning but dopey husband against each other. Kevin might seem like a child of Satan or some other supernatural incarnate, but really he’s like thousands of other children in the world who really don’t seem to have a conscience- and who better to blame than the boy’s own mother?

Anyone who has seen filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher knows she has a propensity for both beautiful cinematography and grueling bleakness. We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the best-selling novel by the same title by Lionel Shriver, is no exception. The film is intensely visual, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, especially around the beginning, and benefits from an outstanding performance by Tilda Swinton as the complex Eva.

Eva seems alternately like a bad mother and all-around ice queen and a woman trying to do best by her family, and one must wonder if her memory (and by extension, the whole movie’s narrative) is reliable as she paints a terrifying portrait of Kevin literally from babyhood to present day. The movie asks the question of whether we can always blame the parents of these children for the kids’ evil actions or if some youngsters are just bad eggs.

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin

The answer to this question is often ambiguous here, but ultimately we decide that no, we can’t ultimately blame Eva for how ‘widdle Kevin’ turned out. It brings up the aged-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ in a new and interesting way, and packs a hell of a wallop in the process. This movie will make you think twice about going off the pill and make you wonder if having a little ball of joy of your own is overrated.

The part near the end of the movie at the school when Kevin’s plan goes full circle makes me think of a extra I saw on my parents’ DVD of the original Halloween. Donald Pleasence, who played Sam Loomis, told the director that he could play the sequence when Myers falls out the window after getting shot and somehow escapes into thin air one of two ways; ‘Oh my God, he’s gone’ or ‘I knew this would happen.’ Ultimately they decided on the latter because the former would be, well, too much.

That’s what I think of when I see Eva’s expression as she eyes the bicycle locks Kevin previously ordered in the mail on the doors of the school auditorium. Her expression is less a look of shocked horror as it is a look of resignation. I knew this would happen. On one hand, you wonder why Eva didn’t get her son major psychological help right off the bat, but on the other, could she really of prevented Kevin’s insanity if she had? After all, when you have a blissfully ignorant husband who refuses to believe your son has a problem, how are you going to get an evaluation carried out without his blessing?

All in all, We Need to Talk About Kevin is kind of like watching a train wreck, albeit a visually striking one with a handful of outstanding shots. It makes us women, whether we plan to be mothers or not, wonder how far maternal love goes and if you can be held culpable simply for not loving your child enough. Is it possible to love a monster? I think so. People do it all the time.

But for someone like Eva who obviously didn’t want to be a mother in the first place, her failure to love her son was ultimately ammunition for her evil child to use against her. Eva’s coldness is not an excuse for Kevin’s behavior anymore than Kevin being a difficult baby is an excuse for Eva to make very little effort with her offspring. One persons’ blame does not cancel the others’ out. But that’s not enough for other parent not to convince themselves that they could do better. Given the circumstances, could you?

weneedtotalkaboutkevintomatina

 

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

01The_Enigma_of_Kaspar_Hauser

   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

01enigma

When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

01enigma_of_kasper_hauser

Marie’s Story (2014)

marie's story

The Miracle Worker in a convent. Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) is a well-meaning but somewhat naive French nun who lives in a convent-slash- school for deaf girls. When Marie Huertin (Ariana Rivoire) arrives, Sister Marguerite as her work cut out for her. Born both blind and deaf, Marie is the wild offspring of working class parents (Gilles Treton and Laura Duthilleul) who, although apparently kind and compassionate, were not up to meeting the needs of their out-of-control daughter.

Marie can’t or refuses to dress herself, eats like an animal, and bites and claws anyone who stands in the way of her achieving her whims. While the Mother Superior (Brigitte Cattilion) believes that Marie can’t be helped and should be sent to an insane asylum or someplace else better equipped to control her unusual behavior, Sister Marguerite takes her on as her own personal project despite being very ill herself. This leads predictably, after much frustration and doubt, to a Eureka moment akin to Helen Keller’s at the water pump and some gradual bonding between Marguerite and her protege.

Marie’s Story is a film which, while very well-acted, should seem familiar to people who hve seen films such as The Miracle Worker, Nell, or Truffaut’s slightly superior oldie The Wild Child. While the character’s disorders are slightly different in the two latter films (having previously been feral humans rather being born blind and deaf,) the set-up is very much the same. The big confrontation between Marguerite and her young charge over whether the wild young thing should eat with a fork strongly echoes a defining scene in The Miracle Worker, while the sequence where the girl is tormented by the poking and prodding fingers of some mean-spirited deaf girls seems reminiscent of the boy’s jarring first arrival to supposed ‘civilization’ in The Wild Child.

It is not surprising that this film should seem uncannily similar to The Miracle Worker, after all, both are based on true stories that occurred around the same time period and both incidents resemble each other a great deal. If Annie Sullivan was a nun who was dying of an incurable disease, well… With all that said, acknowledging that no, Marie’s Story does not feel fresh or particularly innovative or original. it is not a bad movie by a long shot. There’s are some good performances.

Ariana Rivoire does an amazing job as Marie. Not once does she break character, it is easy to imagine that she is really a disabled, nearly feral young girl. Isabelle Carre provides steady support, and while she did not impress me as much as Rivoire (Rivoire admittedly having the more showy role,) she didn’t fail to compel me as a true woman of God. I don’t know if there is a God (being a very skeptical agnostic,) but if there is, people like Sister Marguerite do him proud.

Despite very little dialogue spoken by the character throughout the film, Gilles Treton as Marie’s father touched my heart in a way I can’t exactly explain. You can tell by his look of concerned devotion that he is a good man who provided his daughter with a life much better than most severely disabled people in that era could dare to dream of. He just couldn’t provide her with what she needed most; communication. I found myself liking his character even though he had next to no lines, just call it a hunch, or really good acting on Treton’s part. Although it gets a bit too sentimental at times, Marie’s Story has a good story and strong characters.

It’s a good film in all respects, but it just can’t manage to avoid the pitfall of seeming like ‘another Miracle Worker type’ movie. It doesn’t differentiate from the former enough to give it a true identity. However, if you want a film with Faith-based themes that doesn’t condemn the Catholic church yet doesn’t feel like a proselytizing ‘Christian movie,’this might be a prudent choice. I enjoyed this movie and as a skeptic I consider it a religious movie that doesn’t make a agnostic want to barf. It balances God with a fascinating (if familiar) story and gifted actors. In French. So if you like these kinds of movies, in all likelihood, you’ll enjoy this one. There are far worse films about people living with handicaps to choose from.

marie-heurtin-maries-story-locarno