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.”

Sep 19

“This Is Where I Leave You”: Therapists Won’t Like This

Welcome Home. Get uncomfortable. Tagline for This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You is the type of star-studded dysfunctional-family dramedy you might get kinda excited about after seeing the previews:

But then you find the disappointing reviews. Many say it’s a predictable and not-funny-enough, not good-enough script—adapted, incidentally, by Jonathan Tropper himself, the author of the 2009 best-selling novel.

Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters, sums it all up: “Girls want babies, boys want reassurance, girls nurture, boys need to wander. Dad is dead. Long live formula.”

Despite this, you dig even deeper into what the critics are saying. Alas, you find out that not one, but two, therapists are (once again) depicted badly.

More About the Plot and Characters

Rodrigo Perez, IndieWire, describes “the doyenne of the household” (Jane Fonda) as “an audacious TMI-sharing psychiatrist whose bestselling book exploited her own family’s dysfunction for her gain, much to their resentment.” Fonda’s character Hillary posits, “Secrets are a cancer to a family.”

Here’s a rundown of the rest of the brood, per Perez:

…(O)f course the family in question is composed of nondescript characters and recognizable stereotypes. Bateman once again appears in his favorite role: the perpetually exasperated ‘rational’ guy who has to navigate his neurotic and irrational family. There’s Paul (Corey Stoll), the older resentful brother who can’t get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip (Adam Driver), the baby of the family, is an unreliable, juvenile shithead who’s now dating his cougar-esque ex-therapist (Connie Britton). Wendy [Tina Fey] has two kids, a neglectful, asshole workaholic husband (Aaron Lazar), and still pines for an old boyfriend who suffers from a head injury that’s made him slow (Timothy Olyphant). Rose Byrne co-stars as a girl from Judd’s past that just might be the woman he needs now (how opportune!). Unsurprisingly, no one’s happy, everyone’s dealing with different levels of pain and hardship, and that’s life, right?

Although viewers know Hillary’s adult kids aren’t happy with their mom’s oversharing, specifically how other family members react to Phillip’s new relationship and/or to the boundary-breaking therapist he’s seeing is info I couldn’t find.

Chris Nashawaty, ew.com, concludes the following, however, about the various characters’ representations: “The movie is so festooned with clichés it proves that Tolstoy was dead wrong when he wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This clan is just like the one in August: Osage County (or Home For the Holidays or The Family Stone), only with more eye-rolling one-liners about Jane Fonda’s cantaloupe-sized breast implants. It’s a misfire that’s especially confounding considering that you couldn’t ask for a more promising cast of brother-and-sister bickerers.”

Overall Reviews

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “You laugh in spite of yourself in This Is Where I Leave You, a potty-mouthed comedy with enough exasperation, aggravations, long-standing grievances and get-me-outta-here moments of family stress to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to endure large clan gatherings that might have lasted a bit too long.”

Rodrigo PerezIndieWire: “Too bland to be memorable, too painless to hate, the slight ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ is like a forgettable breeze. While ultimately disposable, with almost nothing insightful to say about family, at least the movie has the decency and self-respect to not grovel or beg you to love it.”

Zachary Wigon, Village Voice: “The most charitable thing you can say about This Is Where I Leave You is that it is resolutely innocuous — a nothing of a movie, neutered and sanitary. Its subject, perhaps unintentionally, is the inexhaustible narcissism of affluent white people, who here mope and moan their way through various break-ups and infidelities.”

Scott Foundas, Variety: “Sitting shiva makes the heart grow fonder (and the libido rage and the repressed grievances runneth over) in ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ a sprawling ensemble dramedy that starts out like a full-tilt sit-com and gradually migrates to a place of genuine feeling.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The actors all seem lost and jittery. The direction seems phoned in while waiting in line at some suburban ATM machine. If you crave freshness, originality or quality, cherish the decision to pass up This Is Where I Leave You and be content with the knowledge that you didn’t miss a thing.”

Sep 12

“Clutter”: A Movie to Rent About Compulsive Hoarding

I recently heard of a movie called Clutter that’s now available on demand via various outlets. Prairie Miller, News Blaze, introduces its star: “Carol Kane is Linda, the charmingly charismatic compulsive hoarder in question…[who] was ironically abandoned long ago by her garbageman spouse.”

The film as described on IMDB:

Charlie Bradford [Joshua Leonard], an aspiring filmmaker in his 30s, is doing the best he can to distance himself from the chaos of his childhood home. But his eccentric mother Linda, a compulsive hoarder who suffers from depression punctuated by spells of manic consumption, has a tendency to keep the people and things she loves close at hand. Charlie’s younger sisters still live at home with Linda: Lisa [Natasha Lyonne], the older of the two has a history of petty theft and works as a home healthcare aid, and Penny [Halley Feiffer], who is trying to overcome her agonizing shyness is starting a a new career as a home stager in a beleaguered real estate market. When a water stain on the family’s garage door is interpreted as an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, the house attracts the unwanted attention of the neighbors…and the county health department, which gives the Bradfords a week to clean up their act or lose their home. As the family attempts to clear its clutter, long-buried resentment and grief begin to surface, forcing each of them to face what it is they value most in life.

More specifics from John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “When Linda’s house is condemned, she is secretly moved into a model home whose interiors were ‘staged’ by Penny. Before you can find an episode of Hoarders on your DVR, she’s working to fill empty space in her new home as well. As Charlie and his sisters clear out the garbage in their childhood home, he’s also working on a memoir-doc that traces all his problems back to the day Dad left without saying goodbye.”

Michael Nordine, Village Voice: “The question of why, how, and when we reach our breaking points with those closest to us is central to Diane Crespo’s film, as is the difficulty and necessity of reconciling in the aftermath.”

The trailer:

As there are few reviews, I rely on the same critics already cited for some conclusions.

Michael Nordine, Village Voice:

The details of this family’s slow unraveling are so specific they almost feel autobiographical, and as a result occasionally insular; we’re thrust into their problems like a therapist mid-session.

We get a glimpse of who these people are and what makes them tick, but never know them in a way that helps us truly understand them or become especially invested in finding out what became of them.

Prairie Miller, News Blaze: “Clutter pays careful attention to each of these thwarted, deeply scarred family members, candidly opening up with raw feeling their long festering psychological scars – but always nonjudgmentally and with abundant empathy. While deciphering with patient clarify and sensitivity, the many layers dwelling beneath the emotional meaning of material things as well.”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Leonard finds enough believable sadness in his role to make the script’s on-the-nose metaphors more poignant than they may deserve to be, but little else in the film is up to the level of Kane’s committed, unshowy performance. Production and costume design further a stylized atmosphere that makes the drama difficult to take seriously.”

For info on how to rent or buy the film, please refer to the movie’s website.

Jul 11

“Boyhood”: A Young Man Develops Over the Course of 12 Real Years

Boyhood follows the development of a young man within his family and environment over the course of 12 real years, a unique way to film a non-documentary. To pull this off, in fact, director Richard Linklater took quite the gamble that all his actors would remain available over this period.

The boy in question is Mason (Ellar Coltrane). His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. In addition, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei makes her acting debut playing Mason’s sister Samantha.

Although the film clocks in at 164 minutes, the critics don’t seem to mind—they’ve actually been heaping high praise.

THE PLOT

Peter Howell, Toronto Star: “Boyhood is a narrative drama, but it unfolds like documentary truth. Coltrane plays a Texas boy named Mason who is trying to grow up normally in a family tested by divorce, alcoholism and other life stresses.”

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “…Boyhood is an epic about the ordinary: growing up, the banality of family life, and forging an identity. Everything here has been seen in movies and on television countless times before — marital spats, a divorced dad trying to connect with kids he sporadically sees, teenagers acting out, parents having to let go — but perhaps never has the long arc of the journey from childhood to college been portrayed as cohesively and convincingly as Richard Linklater has done in a film that can be plain on a moment-to-moment basis but is something quite special in its entirety.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Everything and nothing happens over the course of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood.’”

Take a peek at the trailer:

THE PARENTS

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

They’re a couple who got married too young and have already hit Splitsville by the time we meet them, and both people are flawed and complicated characters for whom we feel immense compassion. Mason Sr. is in most respects a better dad than the sequence of abusive, alcoholic husbands Olivia tries out later, but he’s also an irresponsible GTO-driving Peter Pan type, who wants all the most dramatic parts of fatherhood without putting in the work. Our sympathy flows most naturally toward Olivia, an undeniably heroic single mom with a pattern of dubious decision-making. Part questing spirit and part nesting instinct, she keeps pushing her kids around the Lone Star State in search of an elusive dream of normalcy and stability, before understanding she must create and define those things for herself.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Whenever Olivia finds a decent man, she marries him, until such time that his temper becomes too much to bear. The first of these separations brings dramatic fireworks early in the film, rendered all the more intense by the fact that Mason and Samantha are forced to leave their new siblings behind with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella).”

RESILIENCE OF THE KIDS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “With all the geographic, educational, parental and emotional adjustments Mason and Samantha are forced to make, they do pretty well, all things considered…With all the childhood traumas, extreme behavior and tragedies that have been depicted in both narrative and documentary films over the last couple of decades, it’s both bracing and refreshing to see more normal (if far from ideal) youthful experience represented in such a nonmelodramatic and credible way.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Parents with grown kids in the audience will likely be the most affected emotionally by “Boyhood,” which culminates with Mason leaving the nest, as seen through the eyes of all those who watched him grow up. As the moment sinks in, Olivia cries, “I just thought there would be more,” and she may as well be speaking on behalf of all the younger viewers…”

Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “It’s lovingly assembled and acted with such grace and ease that it scarcely looks like acting at all. Midway through the film, I found myself wondering whether I’d ever seen anything remotely resembling it before. Except that of course I have; we all have. Simply look at your own family; it’s happening all over. People screw up and make good. They grow bum-fluff beards and fall in love and there’s never any resolution, just more full-speed forward motion.”

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: “Unshakable, witty and deeply felt, the film will be paying emotional dividends for a long, long time.”

Jan 13

“August: Osage County”–A Strong Film Adaptation

Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for the semi-autobiographical Broadway play he’s now adapted for the screen. As described on IMDB, the film August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, is “(a) look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.”

Although the movie is the only version I’ve seen, it’s easy to envision how the play would also have powerfully and rivetingly revealed the various layers of family stuff involved. One who actually can make the comparison to the original, Scott FoundasVariety, concludes, “…(T)his two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.”

When alcoholic poet Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing just days after he hires young Johnna (Misty Upham) to help take care of the house and his pill-popping cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep), the latter turns to her adult kids. There’s the middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the one who’s stayed nearby; the eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), who brings her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) from Colorado; and the flighty, self-involved Karen (Juliette Lewis), who lives in Florida and is recently engaged to slick and sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Also on the scene are Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper) and their adult though seemingly emotionally stunted son (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Very little is seen of Beverly, by the way, who early on is found to have drowned himself. It’s the intensely dramatic interactions among different constellations of family members following the funeral that comprise the meat of the movie. Fortunately, there are sufficient doses of intermittent humor as well.

Watch the trailer for August: Osage County below:

More About Matriarch Violet

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “It’s both ironic and tragic that she’s suffering from mouth cancer. Her mouth burns and her tongue feels as if it’s on fire, she insists, but that doesn’t stop her from spewing verbal venom.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:  Her “…love comes laced with blunt criticism, humiliation and recriminations. Violet has no filter.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “…(S)he’s so drugged up on pharmaceuticals that it’s hard to say where the medicine leaves off and the self-medicating begins.”

Some Family Dynamics

Ian BuckwalterNPR: “Everyone here has pain, everyone has secrets, and while we join these characters for a short time, it’s easy to see that the cycles of lies, distrust, and abuse go back for generations, clinging to this family like the hot summer dust of the empty plains that surround them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Whatever secrets these people think they’re keeping, Vi lets them know that nobody slips anything by her. Worrying news makes way for tragedy, plus a whole string of awkward disclosures, which gives her fewer reasons to hold back.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “This is a story about people bonded by blood but doing what they must to destroy each other—partly out of fear and panic, but also out of twisted love. The more they reveal about themselves, and each other, the more they come to realize how they don’t know each other at all. In the stifling angst of an unbearable Oklahoma August, they merely occupy the same space in a house of strangers.”

Overall Reviews of August: Osage County

Owen Gleibermanew.com: “The fights, insults, and sadistic parent-child mind games, the powerhouse acting that shades into overacting (though I’ll be damned if you could say exactly when)…the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “Streep is freaking Streep. You’d think nothing would surprise anymore, but her fierce, drugged, dying monster here is something to behold. And Roberts has never been better, bringing her own surprising icepick to the fight. Overall, the ensemble is every bit as good as you’d expect.”

Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger: “There’s quite a bit to enjoy here, particularly for fans of hurtful, overheated family melodrama. And of nasty sharp-tongued comedy as cold as ice, and black as tar.”

The Writer, Tracy Letts, Speaks

Letts, interviewed on NPR, believes the material asks these ultimate questions: “Do you have a choice? Are you your brother’s keeper? When does your responsibility to your family end, and when should your responsibility to yourself take over?”

In an article in Slant, Letts states the following about another key element:

…I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s ‘running things now’ was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: ‘Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.’ As opposed to allowing people to make their own choices, for good or ill.