Aug 26

“Tallulah”: Three Wayward Women and a Baby

At its heart,Tallulah is about three women who think themselves unfit for parenthood for wildly different reasons, and while writer-director Sian Heder is unafraid to explore their many flaws, she fortunately refrains from passing judgment or drawing simplistic, moralizing conclusions. David Sims, The Atlantic

Sian Heder, a writer for Orange Is the New Black, is also the creative force behind a Netflix original film, available for streaming, called Tallulah. And for its “(t)hemes of motherhood, abandonment, loss, family and female identity…plumbed to their depths” (Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times), it’s well worth the watch.

More from Walsh about the plot in brief:

Heder…reached into her own life experiences to write and direct the film, starring Ellen Page in the titular role as a nomadic young woman who has no attachments to any place or thing. She does, however, have a knack for attaching herself to people — her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), Nico’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney), and a baby she accidentally babysits, then accidentally kidnaps, in a good faith effort to keep her safe.

David Sims, The Atlantic, with more details:

…As the film begins, [her] relationship falls apart, and Tallulah finds herself in New York, stealing from fancy hotel rooms while posing as a housekeeper. There, she meets Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a permanently wasted socialite who seems obviously neglectful of her one-year-old daughter; in a moment of vigilante justice, Tallulah snatches the baby and begins pretending it’s her daughter…

Margo and Tallulah eventually form a bond, and life lessons are learned—that Margo should take more risks, that Tallulah can see the value of family and more traditional domesticity. But every time it seems that Tallulah is swerving into conventional Hallmark-movie territory, Heder does something unexpected. Rather than dropping Carolyn’s story once her baby is taken, the film zooms in on her grief, letting the audience feel the consequences of Tallulah’s actions. In a film of strong performances, Blanchard is probably the biggest surprise…

The trailer’s below:

Most critics agree that the acting rises above all else. Geoff Berkshire, Variety:

Page is simply superb in a complex role that perfectly plays to her gift for balancing deadpan comedy with surprisingly deep emotional reserves. And while she was a sterling support opposite Page in ‘Juno,’ Janney rises here nearly to the level of co-lead as an uptight control freak whose desire to cling to her family only serves to push them away.

Reliable character actress Blanchard is perhaps the biggest revelation, playing Carolyn at first as a spot-on parody of a certain kind of real housewife of self-absorption, but gradually peeling back her layers — in collaboration with Heder — to reveal the wounded woman underneath.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: “…(I)f there were an Oscar for best performance by children too young to know they’re in a movie, the twins playing this baby (Liliana and Evangeline Ellis) would be a shoo-in.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “And when Uzo Aduba of ‘Orange’ turns up as a drily capable (and pregnant) child-services officer, Heder’s portrait gallery of motherhood — good, flawed, accidental, just trying to make it through the day — is complete.”

Autostraddle: “Lunch with Margo’s gay ex-husband [John Benjamin Hickey] and his new partner [Zachary Quinto] is one of the best scenes in the film, sketching a whole universe and providing a window into Margo and her husband’s marriage without trying to give more information than the audience can handle.”

Selected Tallulah Reviews

Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times: “Even if the tale is a bit much to be believed at times, it’s unlikely you’ll see a film more refreshingly honest and incisive about motherhood than ‘Tallulah’.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “Heder’s approach is reminiscent of her terrific work on ‘Orange’ in numerous ways — from a boundless compassion for women’s hidden stories to the graceful mix of smart comedy and human drama.”

Scott Tobias, NPR: “That Heder’s warts-and-all vision of maternal ambivalence lacks focus and concision seems partly by design, a refusal to oversimplify these women for the sake of narrative expedience. They’re screwed up. They’re good-hearted. They’re human.”

Feb 20

“The DUFF”: What Is It? Movie Acronym Explained

Just as I didn’t at first know the meaning of the movie title Laggies (see yesterday’s post), I also didn’t know about the meaning of new film The DUFF. Guess this shows just how out of it I am, as the Urban Dictionary has had entries as far back as 2003.

Turns out DUFF stands for “designated ugly fat friend.” And, now that I know, I’m not unhappy at all that this has never been part of my lexicon.

If Laggies is for the twenty-somethings, The DUFF is for the teen-somethings. In Kody Keplinger‘s YA novel (2010), on which this film is based, the DUFF is Bianca, age 17—who in actuality “isn’t that fat or ugly,” according to Booklist. But among some peers she’s designated as such anyway—that’s just how those mean kids roll.

By the way, the author was a senior in high school herself when she wrote it—and apparently she really gets the struggles of being viewed as a DUFF.

Kirkus Reviews, about Keplinger’s book: “Her snarky teen speak, true-to-life characterizations and rollicking sense of humor never cease in her debut. Teen readers will see both themselves and their friends in Bianca’s layered, hostile world.”

School Library Journal: “This debut novel is a fun read and surprisingly feminist in a number of ways. Keplinger makes good points about female body image and female friendship, and discusses how both men and women use offensive terms about women as a means of social control.”

THE DUFF: THE MOVIE VERSION

First, watch the trailer below:

I hear what you’re thinking: That Bianca is neither fat nor ugly! Couldn’t they fill that role with someone more appropriate?!

Seriously? I thought we’d already covered this.

But back when the casting choice was announced many were similarly outraged. Carole Horst, Variety, states that it created “a storm on social media. ‘Only in Hollywood would Mae Whitman be considered the Duff’ was the consensus.”

Among the adults featured, states Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter, is Allison Janney, who’s “effortlessly complicated as Bianca’s concerned yet distracted single mom, a self-help maven spouting mnemonic-device pep talks.”

Like Whitman, Janney relates (The Columbus Dispatch) to having been DUFFish—in her case, for being so tall. And, she says, “Everyone is some kind of DUFF. It doesn’t mean you’re ugly or fat. Most of us have felt, at some point, that we don’t fit in, for whatever reason.”

SELECTED MOVIE REVIEWS (FROM WOMEN CRITICS ONLY)

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “While it’s neither as biting as Mean Girls nor as sweetly referential as Easy A, the earnest and sometimes amusing The DUFF is a fine addition to the canon.”

Inkoo Kang, The Wrap: “…’The DUFF’ is clever, funny and quotable enough to become this decade’s ‘Mean Girls’.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “…(T)his high school rom-com is tricked out in rhetoric of independence and self-discovery that give it a pseudo-feminist sheen. But, between its grating heroine, strident speechifying, derivative plot and draggy tone and tempo, it’s like the redheaded stepchild of ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Freaky Friday’.”

Amy Nicholson, Los Angeles Weekly: “The DUFF doesn’t seem to know what its point actually is. It’s pro-self-acceptance and also pro-makeover. It’s about liking yourself, and how you’d like yourself better with a boyfriend.”

Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News: “Most of the credit goes to Whitman, who stands in, and stands up, for the DUFF in all of us.”

Dec 25

“West Wing”: Moving and Meaningful Holiday-Themed Episode

The first holiday-themed episode of The West Wing aired in 1999. Called “In Excelsis Deo,” it was particularly moving and later, in fact, won an Emmy for its writing. It’s been on many “best” lists.

“It manages to be one of the funniest and most heart-wrenching episodes the show has ever produced,” states BuzzFeed.

One major plot line is that Toby (Richard Schiff), the White House Communications Director, arranges, without the knowledge or permission of President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), an honor guard ceremony at Arlington for a homeless Korean War veteran. Why? When the man died he was wearing an old coat of Toby’s he’d donated to Goodwill—Toby’s card was found in a pocket.

In spite of the rogue nature of his actions, Toby pulls it off. While most of the White House staff join in a traditional holiday gathering, a few join Toby in attending the veteran’s services. Watch below:

Also featured in this episode is a story about a fatal assault on a gay male youth.

C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney), White House Press Secretary, is working on getting support for needed hate crimes legislation. In a talk with the murdered boy’s parents, C. J. broaches the question of whether they’d accepted his homosexuality.

The answer is a twist with a punch all its own:

Sep 20

“Mom”: New TV Show Spotlights Family in Addictions Recovery

Premiering Monday on CBS is the new sitcom Mom, described by CinemaBlend below:

MOM is a comedy from executive producer Chuck Lorre starring Anna Faris as a newly sober single mom raising two children in a world full of temptations and pitfalls, and multiple Emmy Award winner Allison Janney as her critical, estranged mother. Christy (Faris) is a waitress at a posh Napa Valley establishment who is four months clean and doing her best to be a good mom and overcome a history of questionable choices. Her sobriety is tested when Bonnie (Janney), her recovering alcoholic mom, reappears chock-full of passive-aggressive insights into Christy’s many mistakes.

Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe, elaborates: “Christy desperately wants to be different from her estranged mother. An emotionally brittle waitress, Christy blames all of her hardest problems — addiction, terminal cynicism, bad choices in men — on the woman who raised her.”

Has two years of sobriety under mom Bonnie’s belt given her tools to deal with her own shortcomings? You decide. Alessandra Stanley, New York Times: “Bonnie is an irrepressibly cheery and unapologetic former addict who cannot understand why her grown daughter is still so resentful. ‘I’ve watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet,’ Christy says. Bonnie replies primly, ‘It’s not a sin to be thrifty, Dear.’”

A sneak peek below:

Some Reviews

Alessandra StanleyNew York Times: “’Mom’ deals lightly with the serious problem of addiction and manages to be clever, not sanctimonious.”

Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly:

…(Y)et another well-cast sitcom that doesn’t make you laugh as much as you want it to. But the lack of mirth in Mom is due to writing that takes seriously the rough edges of its lead character: Anna Faris is quite appealing as Christy, whose messy present and damaged history reveals itself by surprising degrees over the course of a smartly scaled pilot…The pilot’s poignancy and hard-knock, hard-living characters give this sitcom an interesting point of difference — and if it can be, like, 19 percent funnier, it could be something special.

Melissa MaerzEntertainment Weekly:

Luckily, Faris and Janney are funnier than the material. When Faris, a sad clown with a rubbery pout, cries while serving dinner to befuddled patrons, she’s the Lucille Ball of dumb-blonde comedy. And Christy’s devotion to AA suggests deeper pathos to come, especially since Lorre’s general view of humanity seems to fall somewhere between bleak and cruel. This isn’t the type of show you’ll want to watch with your own mom — unless she’s the type who licks cocaine off the carpet.

Brian Lowry, Variety:

One suspects the show will ultimately rise or fall on the Faris-Janney material, and just how far it can push the you-were-an-awful-mother shtick, coupled with the occasionally warm-and-fuzzy flourish, without becoming stale.

Still, Janney seems like a natural for this sort of comedic turn, and her character’s zen-like attitude, not over-thinking things and living in the moment, hits home. By that measure, ‘Mom’ has the bones of a pretty durable TV show. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how many laughs you can snort out of that carpet.

 

Sep 19

“Touchy Feely”: Massage Therapist Averse to Physical Contact

The phrase “touchy feely” has some negative connotations, doesn’t it? Too experiential. Too expressive. Maybe even boundary-crossing bad behavior.

Fortunately, that isn’t what the new film Touchy Feely by writer/director Lynn Shelton is all about. Here’s what Rotten Tomatoes says:

TOUCHY FEELY is a closely observed examination of a family whose delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a sought after massage therapist and a free spirit, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) thrives on routine and convention, running a flagging dental practice and co-dependently enlisting the assistance of his emotionally stunted daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which not only makes her occupation impossible but severely hinders the passionate love life between her and her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy.) Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s ‘healing touch’ begin to miraculously invigorate his practice as well as his life outside the office. As Abby navigates her way through a soul-searching identity crisis, her formerly skeptical brother discovers a whole new side of himself. TOUCHY FEELY is about the experience of living in one’s own skin, both literally and figuratively. The film, written and directed by Shelton, and co-starring Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama (of the indie rock band Grand Hallway), is filmed on location in Shelton’s hometown and urban muse of Seattle.

The Title

Andrew Schenker, Slant:

The title of Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, which literally refers to lead character Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) profession as a massage therapist, serves as a guiding metaphor for the film’s exploration of human connection and emotional estrangement. As far as ruling metaphors go, it’s a rather obvious one, but Shelton overcomes the base literariness of the conceit by crafting a film of astonishingly sustained mood and by tying this beguiling atmosphere to the mental states of her characters.

The Trailer

You can see (and touch-y and feel-y if you really want) the preview below:

What’s Really Abby’s Problem?

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly:

…a conventional soul who’s hiding her anxiety — even from herself. Abby gives tantric massages, and also gets them from Bronwyn, an aging hippie (Allison Janney, acting mellow for a change), all to keep herself centered. But when Jesse (Scoot McNairy), her boho bike-shop-repairman boyfriend, asks her to move in with him, and she agrees, she falls apart. She suddenly can’t touch anyone’s skin, because she’s so uncomfortable in her own.

What Really Happens to Paul? Who Knows, But…

Marshall Fine, HollywoodandFine: “Pais…captures that sense of a man suddenly finding himself on terra incognita – where life is so much better than he could imagine. Pais, a master of kvetchy understatement, is delightful as a man whose insulated existence is invaded by a world that wants and needs a skill he never knew he had.”

The Characters’ Relationships

Alonso Duralde, GlobalPost: “‘Touchy Feely’ touches upon any number of interesting relationships, from Jenny’s quiet longing for Jesse to the unlikely attraction that blooms between nerdy Paul and free-spirited Bronwyn, but too often Shelton returns to Abby, who is such an unsympathetic narcissist that not even the charismatic DeWitt can make her compelling.”

The Therapies Involved

Ella Taylor, NPR

What’s different here is Shelton’s joshing affection for practitioners of the flannel-shirted New Age healing therapies of her beloved Pacific Northwest. ‘Your energy’s off,’ Abby’s serene, dirndled mentor Bronwyn (Allison Janney) tells her — and for once, we’re invited neither to snicker nor particularly to believe in the innate powers of reiki massage. You just have to believe, rather, that these walking wounded believe — and that their commitment to weird signs and portents might spur them to take control of their faltering destinies.

Overall Reviews: Not Exactly “Ecstatic”

Hank Sartin, RogerEbert.com:

I wanted to like this movie more than I did. DeWitt radiates a warm comforting presence that makes her completely believable as a massage therapist you’d want to see. And when the character faces this strange crisis, DeWitt can do a lot with scenes of quiet dread. But that’s a lot of what she’s given to play for the middle section of the movie, and an Ecstasy trip late in the film seems like a contrivance to get her out of the story trap Shelton has written her into.

Alonso DuraldeGlobalPost: “The plot climaxes with several characters dropping Ecstasy to reach an emotional catharsis, which is one of the laziest shortcuts in the screenwriter’s handbook.”

Ella Taylor, NPR

…Not since Jane Campion’s wonderfully warped Sweetie has a movie so artfully demonstrated that a little magical thinking, or some creative appropriation of pop-culture symbols, or a bit of attention to the signals of the body can propel a lost soul to feel her way toward renewal. In Touchy Feely, faith – and hey, maybe a little therapeutic drug abuse — doesn’t have to be justified. It just has to get you up and running.