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My Own Private High Anxiety

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The author in high school, 1983

“It must be hell inside this guy’s head.” That’s what one of the commenters wrote in response to my recent post Five Reasons ‘A Star is Born’ Sucks. And you know what? She’s right. Not about A Star is Born — it does suck (in my opinion, with which you’re free to disagree). But it is sometimes hell inside my head, and on this, World Mental Health Day… I know, there’s a day for everything these days, but this one seems worthwhile… I think it’s time to give you a peek inside my infernal noggin.

I’ve dealt with mental-health issues my entire life: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, however you want to diagnose it. When I was in Kindergarten, I cried so much because I missed my mom and I had such a mad crush on my teacher (who now lives next door to my father, but that’s another story) that they sent me to see the school psychologist. I didn’t know he was a psychologist. To me, he was just Mr. Sargent.

He was my own personal Mister Rogers. Mr. Sargent had a puppet — a dolphin named Duso — and I was encouraged to share my feelings with this felt Flipper. I did, and I stopped crying. Thank you, Mr. Sargent, and Duso, wherever you are.

(I just now learned that Duso was part of a program called Developing an Understanding of Self and Others that later riled conservative parents in Lake County, Florida, among other places. The magic of Google! )

Through school, I used my anxiety to fuel my overachievement. I always got good grades, but I often felt bad about myself. I looked to others  — especially girlfriends — to make me feel better about myself. When those relationships inevitably ended, I’d be crushed and go into deep depressions. After one particularly painful breakup,  I felt suicidal and spent a month in a mental hospital over Winter break in Charlottesville.

The staff didn’t know what to do with me. The rest of the patients were locals (all the students were home for the holidays), and my problems were different from theirs. I’d try to talk to my fellow residents, but the conversations went like this.

RED SHIFFLETTE (note: this is a pseudonym for another patient) Why are you in here?

ME: I have problems with women.

RED: Oh. You mean, you hit ’em?

ME: No, I just don’t understand them.

Red walks away.

I didn’t talk much in group therapy, and there wasn’t much time for individual therapy, so it was judged that I was not progressing. The doctors diagnosed me with manic depression (even though I’d never felt manic), put me on Lithium and sent me home.

The drug zoned me out. I took a semester off, moved back in with my parents and worked in a record store, shuffling up and down the aisles like an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

I started seeing a psychiatrist for weekly talk therapy and medication monitoring, and he concluded I had been misdiagnosed and tapered me off the Lithium. That made me feel more like myself again — my depressed, anxious self — and as a talk therapist, he left something to be desired. One of our sessions went like this:

DR. BALLOON (again, a pseudonym) So, what seems to be the problem?

ME: I don’t understand women.

DR. BALLOON: Yeah, they’ve got it easy. The pressure is all on us men. Women just have to lie back and enjoy it.

I walk away.

I went back to school and finished, then moved to New York City and had to face my greatest fear: being alone. I’d always lived with someone — my parents, my roommates, my girlfriends — and I never felt safe without somebody else in the house. I traced this fear back to my childhood epilepsy.

I’d had seizures in the middle of the night starting in elementary school. I only had a few before my parents took me to a neurologist who put me on Dilantin, which controlled them. But I was always terrified another one was going to strike, and what would I do if I were all alone with no one to soothe me?

As epileptic seizures go, mine were pretty mild: petit mal, as they were called. I was never in danger of choking on my tongue, but the sensation of waking up from a dead sleep and realizing my brain was not communicating with the rest of my body is the most frightening experience I’ve ever endured. “MOVE!” my brain would tell my arm. It wouldn’t move. “KICK!” my brain would tell my leg. It wouldn’t kick. I felt a sensation like the pins and needles you get when a limb falls asleep, but over my entire body. It lasted for a few minutes, which felt like a few hours, and then subsided.

I felt a deep sense of shame about the seizures. I didn’t want anyone to know I had them. My parents worried about me having a seizure when they weren’t there to comfort me through it, so I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses or go away to camp. When I was in high school, a bully who sat behind me in Spanish class peeked at my medical records in the school nurse’s office and threatened to expose me as an epileptic. I spent the rest of the year with a feeling of dread in my stomach.

My response to this fear of sleeping alone was to jump into relationships with women, whether they were right for me or not, just so that I’d have someone there to take care of me in case I needed it. Even after I outgrew my childhood epilepsy and my EEGs came back clear, the phobia was deep-seated. So I got married too young, and to the wrong person. And that only led to more anxiety and depression.

These days, I’m doing pretty well. I underwent years of intensive psychotherapy with one of the best doctors in Manhattan, and I’m on meds that seems to be working. I’ve been happily divorced for more than a dozen years, I’ve got a couple of great kids, and I love my work. I get paid to watch movies and TV shows and write about them and interview the people who make them. What’s not to love?

But I still struggle with moodswings, although there have been many more highs than lows lately. At least the highs feel good when I’m having them, and my mania manifests itself in relatively harmless ways: I buy way too may Pez dispensers, say. I still have my lows, too, but they’re not as low as they used to be.

And every now and then when I feel out of control, I ask myself: What would Duso do?

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Five Reasons Why “A Star is Born” Sucks

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I wanted to like A Star is Born. I loved the trailer and raved about it in my New York Times column. Then I saw the movie, and it’s the worst piece of wet kitsch I’ve endured since The Greatest Showman. (If you loved The Greatest Showman, you can stop reading now, because you probably loved A Star is Born, too.)

How did I hate A Star is Born? With every fiber of my being. Let me count the ways.

Bradley Cooper doesn’t know the difference between acting and impersonating. The best performance is A Star is Born, paws down, is given by Bradley Cooper’s real-life dog, Charlie, who plays his character’s dog, Charlie. I didn’t doubt for a second that Charlie was a dog. I didn’t believe for a second, on the other hand, that Bradley Cooper was an alcoholic, drug-addicted, grizzled country singer. He seemed like he was doing an impression of a country singer — specifically, Kris Kristofferson, who played the same role in the 1976 version of this Hollywood chestnut — with a little bit of Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart thrown in, and a whole lot of Sam Elliott, who plays his brother. The fact that Cooper’s character, Jackson, admits he stole his brother’s voice doesn’t make it any less an act of dramatic theft.

Lady Gaga is ga-gorgeous from the get-go. Yet the whole movie rests on the fact that no one has noticed how beautiful her character, Ally, is until Jackson comes along because everyone’s always told her she’s got a big nose. (Was this left over from the script for the Barbra Streisand version? Now that’s a magnificent schnoz!) Jackson’s fixation on Ally’s facial features grows creepy: He peels off her fake eyebrows; he wishes there were a big billboard of her nose; he has an odd habit of smearing cream pies all over her face. This is romantic?

The dialogue is way too on the nose. And not in just the nasal-fixation scenes. The script, co-written by Cooper, telegraphs its lines. When Ally resists a producer who’s  trying to turn her from a fresh-faced singer-songwriter into, well, a Lady Gaga-like diva, she declares, “I am what I am!” That’s not screenwriting; that’s Popeye.

The music isn’t exactly “Evergreen.” Her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” aside (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t written for this movie), none of Lady Gaga’s songs are one-millionth as catchy as such pieces or pure pop perfection as “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face.” The best song in the movie contains the line, “We’re far from the shallow now.” Oh no, I’d say you’re deep in the shallow now. Why couldn’t they hire Paul Williams to write new songs like he did for the Streisand version? Mr. Williams is alive and well; I recently talked to him on the phone. His music is ageless and evergreen; the new score is dated and stale.

Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle are wasted, and that’s no joke. I could’ve watched a whole movie about Clay’s character — Ally’s frustrated-crooner dad — and his fellow limo-driver pals, played by such great character actors as Barry Shabaka Henley and Michael Harney.  And Chappelle is reduced to playing the poor-but-happy childhood pal who helps Jackson rediscover his soul by sitting him down for a home-cooked meal. It’s the kind of demeaning trope he used to spoof so mercilessly on Chappelle’s Show. Maybe Dave’s been hanging out with John Mayer too much lately?

A star may have been born, but I was just bored. Late in the film, Jackson reveals that he tried to hang himself with a belt when he was 13 years old and failed. I found myself wishing he had succeeded — it would’ve saved him, and me, a lot of misery.

NYFF: My Favourites and Least Favourite

 

We’re one week into the 2018 New York Film Festival, and I’ve already seen two of this year’s best movies — as well as an early contender for one of the worst.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the Opening Night feature, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. I’m not gonna lie:  I hated the beginning of this movie, as the Greek director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer overused fish-eye lenses to create a sense of surrealism around the tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, an unquestionable Oscar favorite), an overgrown, temper tantrum-throwing baby of a ruler — sound familiar? But as the film unspooled, and ladies in waiting Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone engaged in a cutthroat competition to win the monarch’s favor, the story grew on me. Lanthimos strikes me as a Stanley Kubrick acolyte, (you could certainly do worse for a cinematic  idol), and The Favourite is his Barry Lyndon. All in all, a strong start to the Festival.

Now let’s move on to two films that give me life — and hope for the future of cinema. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is an exquisitely observed portrait of a modern-day NYC couple struggling to conceive a child. Paul Giamatti is, as almost always, note-perfect as the husband, and Kathryn Hahn (whom I don’t always enjoy) matches him beat for beat, as does Molly Shannon, another performer who sometimes grates on me but is well-cast as a buttinsky best friend here. Jenkins doesn’t make movies often — this is only the third she’s directed in 20 years, after Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — but when she does, they’re achingly autobiographical gems.

With Wildlife, cowriter-director Paul Dano proves that he’s just as gifted as a filmmaker as he is an actor. Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, this painstakingly precise drama follows a sensitive 14-year-old (Ed Oxenbuild, a remarkable young Aussie) witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage in 1960 Montana. Carey Mulligan will no doubt be an Oscar contender for her fiery turn, reminiscent of Jessica Lange in 1994’s Blue Sky, as a housewife desperate to reinvent herself sexually after her unemployed husband (Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent as ever) leaves home to fight a forest fire. With Bill Camp, who’s been my favorite character actor ever since he played Dano’s cruel dad in Love & Mercy, rounding out the ensemble as Mulligan’s gimpy lover, this is the best-acted film I’ve seen this year. And Dano — who co-wrote the script with real-life love Zoe Kazan — has a filmmaker’s natural eye. He must’ve paid close attention to Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of There Will Be Blood.

On the documentary front, Errol Morris’ American Dharma is a disappointingly unfocused portrait of Steve Bannon. The often-reliable director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War tries to examine the Breitbart/Trump firebrand’s twisted psychology through discussions of his favorite movies — black-and-white war films like 12 O’Clock High and Paths of Glory and Westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But due to a lack of context, the gimmick doesn’t work, aside from an insightful section in which Bannon revealingly compares himself to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.

Welles is all over this year’s festival, with the debut of his finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind, a fascinatingly muddled mess, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an entertaining documentary by documentarian du jour Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) about the chaotic making of Wind. My advice: See the documentary first, as I did, or else Wind will make almost no sense — although the performances by John Huston as a Welles-ian filmmaker fighting to remain relevant in the New Hollywood of the ’70s and Peter Bogdanovich as…. well, basically, Peter Bogdanovich (he replaced Rich Little in the role!) are enjoyable.

Which brings us to the festival’s nadir, at least so far: The Coen Brothers’ disastrously awful The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A sextet of Western shorts written over the last 25 years and stuck in the siblings’ bottom drawer, the stories should’ve stayed there. The tone is all over the map. It opens with a gory, goofy — call it “gorfy” — segment in which Tim Blake Nelson’s title character croons cowboy tunes and shoots various people dead. Then James Franco stars in another lighthearted vignette about an outlaw who escapes a hangman’s noose, until he doesn’t. Suddenly, the movie turns alternately somber and grotesque with prolonged segments wasting Tom Waits as a gold prospector; Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who exploits an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling); and a brutally overlong romance involving a damsel in distress (Zoe Kazan). The anthology is finally wrapped up with a stagecoach ride that goes nowhere, through no fault of the thoroughbred actors: Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays and a scene-stealing Chelcie Ross as a talkative trapper. Because someone dies in each of the six segments, the Coens — or was it Film Festival director Kent Jones? — tried to claim that the theme of mortality ties together these six disconnected chapters, but I’m not buying it. I’m also disturbed by the Coens’ depiction of Native Americans as faceless savages.

The Coens haven’t made a good movie since their last Western, 2010’s True Grit, and Buster Scruggs — which the brothers admitted is wildly mistitled, since Scruggs dies early  — may well be their worst film ever. Its only competition is a film with a title that could’ve more accurately applied to Buster Scruggs: Intolerable Cruelty.

The Best Movie I’ve Seen in 2018 (So Far)

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Oftentimes the films that sound like the absolute worst on paper turn out to be the best on screen. If you had told me at this time last year that my favorite movie of 2017 — and the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars — was a Cold War-era romance between a mute cleaning woman and a fish-man — I would’ve said that makes as much sense as the title The Shape of Water.

It may sound puzzling, but my favorite movie I’ve seen in 2018 so far is about a mousy housewife who discovers she has genius-level skills at putting together jigsaw puzzles and sees the pieces of her life falling into an exhilarating new place as a result. I know, I know, it sounds awful, but trust me on this one: Puzzle is a masterpiece.

Adapted by one of the world’s most underrated filmmakers, Oren Moverman, along with Polly Mann, from 2010’s Argentine movie Rompecabezas, Puzzle stars Kelly Macdonald, whom I had the privilege of interviewing along with director Marc Turteltaub and producer Wren Arthur after a recent SAG-AFTRA Foundation screening of the film.The Glaswegian actress has brought a captivating presence to Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men, Gosford Park and Boardwalk Empire, but nothing prepared me for the powerful subtlety of her performance here.

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Macdonald says and does relatively little in many of her scenes, yet a deeply moving drama plays out across her face; she would’ve been a great silent-film actress. She’s matched in quality by Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) as a slyly seductive divorced inventor who becomes her puzzle-competition partner and David Denman (aka Roy, Pam’s first fiancé on The Office) as her lunkheaded-mechanic husband.

The beauty of Puzzle comes not just from its luminous visuals and hypnotic score but from the empathy it shows for each of its characters, including the very different sons of Macdonald’s and Denman’s characters, played by Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler. One’s a smart-ass college-bound kid who wants to take a gap year and travel in Tibet; the other’s a frustrated wannabe chef forced to work at his father’s garage.

The characters in Puzzle sometimes make morally questionable decisions, but there are no heroes or villains here. Like puzzle pieces, everyone has their own unique shape. Kind of like the shape of water, you might say.  But when you put them all together, they create a picture more breathtakingly beautiful than the sum of its parts.

RBG, Mr. Rogers & Itzhak: Profiles in Kindness

 

37422431_413141852529372_4787438631390281728_nOne of my favorite films of the year, Alison Chernick‘s wonderful documentary Itzhak lm is available on Amazon and iTunes today. If you loved RBG and the Mister Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, you’ll be right in tune with this loving portrait of the great violinist and humanitarian Itzhak Perlman. It’s the type of profile in kindness that we need right now. I chatted with Chernick about music, movies and mensches.

Why did you want to make a film about Itzhak Perlman?

He’s the ultimate mensch. Everyone knows he’s a great violinist but I didn’t want to make a concert film. I wanted to tell the untold story and unravel the man behind the musician.  The music starts in his heart and flows through his hands. Itzhak is a warm, kind and generous person. I wanted to capture his wealth of humanity in this film.

He seems like an approachable, down-to-earth guy, and he got very comfortable around you. How did you reach the point where he didn’t notice you were there?

Documentaries by nature are very intrusive — that’s the name of the game. So the art of documentary filmmaking is both riding that balance between being in the way and out of the way.  You have to be in the way enough to get what you need, up close, but also out of the way so you’re not interfering. It takes time to build that trust and once that was in place – plus his comfort in front of the camera – the combination and chemistry created a good path for honesty.

Your films are always cinema verite. Why do you favor that style over a more traditional talking-heads approach?

I find that to be the most organic and natural way to present somebody. It gives more credit to the viewer. It allows them to form their own opinions and not be spoon-fed. Often, talking heads can be very interesting, but in this case, I didn’t feel like we needed them. I don’t think there was anyone who could say something about Itzhak that was more interesting than letting Itzhak speak for himself.

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A number of bio-docs have been big hits at the box office this summer, and they all seem to focus on kind-hearted people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fred Rogers and Itzhak Perlman. Why do you think these kinds of films are resonating now?

With what’s going on in the world right now politically, truth is stranger than fiction these days. People are fatigued by the news — and we’re living in morally corrupt times —so positive inspiring stories I believe are somewhat of a relief.

What is it specifically about Itzhak’s life story and personality that makes him an important person to know about and spend time with in this current climate?

His resilience, the story of overcoming adversity — he contracted polio at the age of 4 in Israel and has had leg braces ever since —  this experience created a positive outlook for him later in life, to appreciate what he did have. It humbled him and made him feel lucky for his passion for music and his love for his family. Through watching his experience, we can learn from it. He is a role model to many.

 

This Summer’s Real Superhero Movies

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Have I mentioned how sick I am of superhero movies? Oh, I have? My comic-book fatigue even impinged on my enjoyment of Incredibles 2. I mean, it was fine, but my constant cinematic craving is credibility. Realism is my guiding aesthetic in drama and comedy, and lately it’s led me to a newfound appreciation for documentaries.

A pair of such non-fiction films, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, has pulled off the superhuman feat of cracking the box-office top 10 in the middle of the summer-movie schlockbuster season. But that’s not all these bio-docs of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers have in common.

They’re both portraits of soft-spoken rebels. Neither Ginsburg nor Rogers is known for raising their voices. The jurist recalls one of the most important lessons her mother (who died when Ginsburg was 17) taught her was to always act like a lady, which meant not to yell, and she has found over the course of her legal career that a measured tone proved more effective in arguing her cases for gender equality. Rogers, too, became famous for his gentle demeanor, yet in his own way, he was equally revolutionary, and his kindness and respect for others (especially kids) seems more radical than ever in today’s atmosphere of round-the-clock contentiousness.

They’re both defined by their uniforms. No, they don’t wear capes and tights (although some of the Notorious RBG’s fan art depicts her as Wonder Woman or an Avenger), but Ginsburg proudly displays the array of collars she wears on different occasions. Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began with the host walking in the front door wearing a jacket and dress shoes and changing into a friendlier sweater and sneakers.

They’ve both been vilified by extremists. RBG opens with an audio montage of right-wing radio hosts describing Ginsburg in hateful, often misogynistic terms like witch and zombie. Meanwhile, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? includes a sequence in which the hosts of the misnamed Fox & Friends, among others, attack Rogers as “evil” for having told kids they were special just for being themselves, allegedly creating a generation of entitled snowflakes. Bizarrely, homophobic protestors also picketed Rogers’ funeral, simply because he was tolerant of gays.

They’ve both been parodied by Saturday Night Live. One of the most entertaining scenes in the hugely enjoyable RBG chronicles the famously humorless judge (her kids kept a book called Mommy Laughed memorializing the rare occasions when she cracked up) watching Kate McKinnon’s exuberant impersonation of her on SNL.  For the record, Ginsburg giggles.

Rogers wasn’t always as amused by late-night spoofs, but he recounts an affectionate encounter he had with Eddie Murphy, who did his own inner-city SNL homage, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.

They’ll both soon be subjects of dramatic biopics. Felicity Jones will play Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex, due in theaters this November, which means fictionalized and factual depictions of RBG could both be up for Oscars next year. And two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks will play Rogers in You Are My Friend, the story of the host’s bond with journalist Tom Junod, who’s also one of the most engaging interview subjects in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Two more movies without a superhero in sight? That’s what I’d call a beautiful day in my neighborhood.

Gotti: Is It As Bad As They Say?

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So I took my son to see Gotti — and before you charge me with child abuse, you should know he’s 22. Yes, John Travolta’s Mob biopic got 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I should also mention my son, Jed Fretts Howard, is a very funny stand-up comedian, so I figured we’d have a blast taking shots at it.

But here’s the thing: It’s not bad. It’s so not-bad, it’s not good. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. I’ve seen Travolta give worse performances — most notably and recently, his inexplicably acclaimed, Kabuki-esque turn as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. O.J. Simpson. His John Gotti is like a lukewarm version of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. Which is to say, it’s like his performance as Chili Palmer in Be Cool.

The movie’s structure makes no sense. It starts and ends with Travolta speaking directly into the camera, presumably as the ghost of Gotti from beyond the grave. Then he occasionally narrates the action (to use the term very loosely), which jumps around between the terminally ill don sharing tough-love wisdom with his namesake son (Spencer Lofranco, who seems more suited to Jersey Shore than a gritty mafia movie) and the greatest hits of his criminal career.

The director Kevin Connolly — best known as “E” on Entourage (think about that phrase for a second) — has no feel for the material, and he seems to have chosen the soundtrack by hitting shuffle on his iPod. There’s the expected Dean Martin and Perry Como, but why the theme from “Shaft”? “West End Girls”? “Walk Like an Egyptian”?

He also was apparently incapable of casting any actual Italian-Americans aside from Travolta and Leo Rossi (who co-wrote the scattershot script with Lem Dobbs). Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey — they’re all fine character actors, but they seem like the kind of people who would say “mozzarella cheese.”

Travolta’s real-life wife Kelly Preston goes the full Lorraine Bracco as moll Victoria Gotti, but her character remains one-dimensional, along with everyone else in the supporting cast. The only scenes where she really makes an impact are after the accidental death of the Gottis’ 12-year-old son, Frank, which play with added resonance knowing she and Travolta lost their son, Jett, when he wasn’t much older.

The rest of the movie just plods along. Connolly confusingly intersperses actual news footage of Gotti with the dramatized scenes, and the documentary sequences prove more compelling. John Gotti was famously known as the Teflon Don, and this is a Teflon movie. Nothing sticks to it — or with you. It’s NotBadFellas.