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Mental Illness in Media Can Be Therapeutic: Angelica Jade Bastien

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I’ve written before about my admiration for writer Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes beautifully and with great passion about film and television, especially about the portrayal of black and female characters. She also writes forthrightly about her own struggles with mental illness. In two recent essays she pays tribute to portrayals of mental illness on the large and small screen that are more than authentic; they are therapeutic.

One is a classic, Bette Davis’ Now Voyager, one of my favorites as well. It was an early depiction of the struggle of Charlotte Vale, a young woman from an upper-class Boston family, who has so much anxiety over feelings of being unloved and unworthy that she has a breakdown. With the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played with enormous patience and compassion by Claude Rains, she has one of the cinema’s great transformations, inside and out. Bastien writes:

Now, Voyager remains a timeless portrait of a woman who pulls herself back from the edge of madness to create a life she’s proud to live, with the help of both psychiatry and her own willpower. The film is buttressed by sleek, highly efficient Hollywood production and the moving performances of the cast, notably Davis and Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquith, who helps usher Charlotte into this next phase of her life. Most poignantly, Now, Voyager is a curious outlier in the pantheon of American cinema that concerns itself with women living with mental illness. Few films offer the kind of blistering hope and empathy that has made Now, Voyager endure.

Unlike the “emotional distance” in other movies about mentally ill women, whether they are treated as villains (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” Fairuza Balk in “The Craft”) or quirky misfits, Bastien says that “Now Voyager” “centers on Charlotte’s interior life, including her mental illness, above all else, and how Davis capably brings this to life.”

She also wrote about a view of mental illness made 75 years later, Rachel Bloom’s television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

It has an elasticity few other shows come close to, let alone pull off with such regularity, in the way it melds cutting emotional truths with audacious musical numbers that reference everything from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to 1980s hair-metal bands. But I was always left cold by it. It took until season three, which takes a gimlet-eyed approach to Rebecca’s mental-health concerns, for me to realize that my chilliness toward the series wasn’t a mark of any inauthenticity I witnessed in its narrative. In fact, it isn’t that I didn’t see much of my own journey with mental illness on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I saw too much of myself in the overachieving, myopic Rebecca Bunch.

One of the greatest pleasures of the series is watching Rachel Bloom inhabit this character. She is at her best when she interrogates Rebecca’s mania, capturing the seductive quality of a manic episode. Its garish, bright intensity fools you into believing this is your best self as you dive headfirst into a series of self-destructive and often exhilarating behaviors. I can see myself in Rebecca’s relationship with mania, the vivacity of her daydreams, and her fraught relationship with her mother….In Rebecca’s shifting emotions, I saw my own history: the giddy elation of a new diagnosis she believes can solve everything, the buoyant mania that often follows a suicide attempt, the careful navigation that comes when you’ve tried to set fire to your own life and still have to move forward.

As is increasingly recognized, representation matters. Bloom has been frank in acknowledging her own mental health issues and her determination to present, even in a heightened, comic setting, an authentic depiction of a character for whom mental health is just one of her character attributes. That, in and of itself, can be therapeutic in educating the members of the audience who do not understand these issues and validating the experience of those who understand them only too well.

For the What a Character! Blogathon: Thelma Ritter

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I am honored to participate in this year’s “What a Character!” blogathon, featuring essays about great character actors by movie bloggers across the internet. And I am thrilled to have an opportunity to write about one of my very favorite character actors, the magnificent Thelma Ritter. Whether in comedy or drama, her honest earthiness gave her characters a blunt authenticity that was enormously appealing.

She was nominated six times for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, still a record, three Golden Globes and an Emmy. And she won a Tony for “New Girl in Town.”

She was born in Brooklyn on Valentine’s Day in 1902, and never tried to lose her New York accent, which gave a lot of flavor to the characters she played. She did some acting and was an agent while her children were growing up, but did not get her first movie role until 1945’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” where she had a brief, unbilled scene as a tired mother who could not find a special toy for her son.

Her characters were usually blunt and smarter than the more educated and upper class characters around her. She brought warmth, humanity, street smarts, and crackerjack timing to all of her roles, opposite the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Ritter nursed James Stewart in “Rear Window.”

She was a tipsy maid in “Pillow Talk,” starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson.  And she was Bette Davis’ assistant in “All About Eve,” memorably responding to Eve’s sad story with, “Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”

One of the most complex characters she played was a sometime police informant with her own code of honor in “Pickup on South Street.”

She also appeared in the very silly romantic comedy “A New Kind of Love,” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and in “The Misfits” with Marilyn Monroe.

One of my favorite Ritter performances is in “The Mating Season,” where she a hamburger joint owner whose new daughter-in-law mistakes her for a maid.

And another is opposite Kirk Douglas and Mitzi Gaynor in “For Love of Money.”  It’s a rare role for her because she plays a woman who is wealthy and powerful.  Douglas plays a lawyer she hires to get her estranged daughters to marry the men she has picked for them.

Ritter is the very essence of the character actor, creating vitally real, relatable characters who made the world around the stars real and illuminating the story’s themes.

Announcement: Sixth Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon

Ferdinand

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B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Some potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence including slaughterhouse and bullfights.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Copyright BlueSky 2017

I warn you — a “however” is coming, maybe more than one.

There’s a lot to like in this affectionate version of the book by Munro Leaf about Ferdinand, the bull who did not want to fight; he just wanted to smell the flowers. WWE star John Cena provides a warm, inviting voice for the title character, and Kate McKinnon steals the show as his “calming goat.” The artwork is imaginative and colorful. However, the slight story of the book has been expanded to fill out a feature, and some of the choices are worse than just padding; they are misguided, distracting, even disturbing, especially for the youngest viewers.

Leaf’s original story and the lovely Oscar-winning 1938 Disney animated short are beautifully simple. While most bulls are ferocious and proud to fight matadors, Ferdinand is a gentle soul who just wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. The men who are looking for the fiercest bull of all arrive just as Ferdinand reacts to being stung by a bee. Mistakenly believing that he is a powerfully furious animal, they bring him to the bullring, where he refuses to fight.

The Disney film is eight minutes long and tells the entire story. This version, from Blue Sky, gives us a meandering tale about Ferdinand, bred in a facility that supplies bulls for bullfighters. As a young calf, he is bullied by the others, especially the alpha bull, Valiente, who suffers from what me might term bovine toxic masculinity.

Ferdinand adores his kind-hearted father (Jeremy Sisto), asking him, “Can I be a champ without fighting?” “I wish the world worked that way for you,” his father says before he leaves for the ring. He never returns home.

Ferdinand runs away and finds a perfect home, a flower farm.  He is adopted by Nina, who is so devoted to him that she has him cuddle on the sofa next to her and sleep in her bed, even after he grows to the size of an SUV.

After an adventure that includes a cleverly-constructed scene in yes, a china shop, Ferdinand ends up back at the ranch, where Lupe (McKinnon), his calming goat, declares that she will be his coach for outsmarting the matador.   Ferdinand learns that the only options for the bulls are the ring or the slaughterhouse. He must rescue two of the bulls who taunted him before they are turned into hamburger, and then find a way to survive the bullring.

McKinnon has the same lighting-fast fluidity of mood and character that made Robin Williams an ideal choice to provide the voice for the genie in “Aladdin.”  She is in constant conversation with her many selves, and it is hilarious.  However.  The palpable padding of the storyline would not be a serious problem except for the misjudgment about the presentation of the fatal options available to the bulls.  It is impossible, even for a child, to watch the rescue from the slaughterhouse without recognizing what all of those scary-awful machines are designed to do.  Parents who do not want to answer some tough questions about dinner — or reconcile themselves to a vegetarian menu — should stick with the Disney version.

Parents should know that this movie has peril and violence, including low-key depictions of a slaughterhouse and a bullfight, as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why were the other bulls mean to Ferdinand? Why were the horses mean? Why did Ferdinand want to rescue bulls who were mean to him?

If you like this, try: the book and the Disney animated version of this story and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series