Jul 02

“Tales of the City”: Logical Family (Of Friends)

Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives. Armistead Maupin, Logical Family: A Memoir

In 1994 the United States wasn’t ready for author Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City on TV. Tales mixed LGBT characters with non-LGBT in a created family of friends—what Maupin calls in his memoir a logical family. “…(A)fter six highly successful episodes, PBS chose not to renew the show almost as soon as it had begun in the face of vigorous conservative opposition” (New York Times).

The sequels since then have fared better, though. And now a new televised reboot has entered the scene. This Tales of the City is introduced below by Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture:

The sweetness and sincerity of the original series has returned in the Netflix revival, as have many of the original cast and characters. Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis reprise the roles of Mary Ann and Anna Madrigal, as does Paul Gross as Mary Ann’s former boyfriend Brian. There’s also Michael (Murray Bartlett), a cheerful gay Barbary Lane resident from the original series, and his new boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett), as well as a new set of younger characters, including Brian’s daughter Shawna (Ellen Page), young queer couple Margot (May Hong) and Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia), and a brother and sister pair of social media influencer types (Ashley Park and Christopher Larkin). As in the original series, the makeup of Barbary Lane residents is meant to reflect San Francisco at a certain moment in time — older people, younger people, all with shifting ideas of what identity means and how the world works.

Tales of the City has its origins, of course, with Maupin’s newspaper columns, then his books. Following are a few representative book quotes that highlight the benefits of having both a logical family and a strong sense of individuality and independence:

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

The answer is that you never, ever, rely on another person for your peace of mind. If you do, you’re screwed but good. Not right away, maybe, but sooner or later. You have to…learn to live with yourself.

My life is full of love; I designed it that way. I try to make my own experience about love and I look for kindness in others. That’s the thing I value the most: it will get you through everything.

On a related note, a lot of LGBT folks face difficulties coming out to their biological families. In order to clearly convey one’s identity and what it means, therefore, many a heartfelt letter has been composed. Maupin’s own coming out letter, published in 1977 (San Francisco Chronicle) as though it were written by gay Tales character Michael Tolliver, recently received an emotional reading by stars of the new Netflix series. See it (and weep) at this Dorothy Surrenders link.

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.”

Oct 09

“Freeheld”: A Slice of Lesbian Domestic Partner History

Now showing in larger markets and coming soon to others, Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld is based on the real lives of workplace-closeted Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). When Hester was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they fought (over 10 years ago) for Andree’s right to Hester’s pension benefits. Prevented from achieving this were the county officials known as the “Freeholders.”

This true story, by the way, was previously featured in Cynthia Wade‘s 2007 award-winning documentary of the same title.

Although generally lacking in rave reviews, Rex Reed, New York Observer, is wholeheartedly behind the new film. “It’s a poignant, relevant and beautifully made film that must not be missed by anyone with a heart and a social conscience.”

Representing the other side, Manohla Dargis, New York Times, says it’s “a television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong.”

So, which extreme is it? Probably neither.

As Reed and others have emphasized, this is the role that prompted actor Page to come publicly and poignantly out of her own real-life closet. But with all the recent changes in LGBT rights in this country, how relevant is Freeheld today? Two more opinions that differ widely:

Steve Pond, The Wrap: “…(T)he recent Supreme Court decision didn’t make the film feel like a musty period piece — instead, it seemed to add resonance and immediacy, turning a small victory in one community into the harbinger of greater things to come.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(A)t times plays like a period piece, populated by cardboard bigots, flamboyant gay crusaders and other hoary relics of a less enlightened past. That may be cause for celebration, but it’s hardly a compliment….(A)n oppressively worthy and self-satisfied inspirational vehicle that views its story primarily as a series of teachable moments, all but congratulating viewers for their moral and ideological superiority to roughly half the people onscreen.”

The politics involved, per Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com:

In 2005, when ‘Freeheld’ takes place, New Jersey law allowed people in domestic partnerships to pass on their pensions to their significant others. The law also allowed counties to opt out of such activities. It’s unclear whether the politicians object to Hester because of ‘the sanctity of marriage’ or some compulsive need to not only demand a unanimous vote, but to never reverse any prior vote’s outcome. This latter point is repeated enough times to muddy the waters, especially when one freeholder wants to side with Hester, but doesn’t so as not to break the streak of unanimous votes.

Although Hester isn’t actually an activist for the broader issue of gay marriage, her case is taken up by Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), who is. His performance is widely perceived as “over-the-top” (both The Wrap and Variety and probably others) and “stereotypical gay comic relief” (Hollywood Reporter).

Other noteworthy supporting characters include Michael Shannon as Hester’s sympathetic cop partner and Josh Charles as the only dissenting Freeholder.

The trailer sets up the basics:

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.

Not really sure what happens to Paul, but relationships in this film at the very least tend to be interesting.

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 the reviews are not exactly “ecstatic” (the drug Ecstasy is used in the plot’s climax). One concluding comment from 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.

Dec 28

“Juno”: Teen in Trouble Gets Love and Support from Her Family

The comedy/drama Juno (2007), starring Ellen Page, with J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as her dad and stepmom, presents a pretty functional family, something we don’t often see in films.

There’s also an issue of an unplanned pregnancy in adolescence. As is so often the case, the review by Roger Ebert is spot on: “Juno informs her parents in a scene that decisively establishes how original this film is going to be. It does that by giving us almost the only lovable parents in the history of teen comedies: Bren (Allison Janney) and Mac (J.K. Simmons). They’re older and wiser than most teen parents are ever allowed to be, and warmer and with better instincts and quicker senses of humor…”

Here’s the scene in which the teenager announces her news:

In the next clip, stepmom Bren and Juno’s friend Leah accompany her to her ultrasound:

Juno has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A sampling of reviews:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Horrors — was this yet another soulless indie movie in which all the characters are deadpan and ironic and way too clever, accompanied by the kind of songs you might hear at an open-mic coffeehouse? But director Jason Reitman made a pretty great movie last time (‘Thank You for Smoking’), so I stayed in my seat. By its end, ‘Juno,’ in its guilelessly chatty way, touches the heart — and yes, I had tears in my eyes. This movie works, on its own terms.”

Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “It transcends its own genre. Only superficially a teen comedy, the movie redounds with postmodern — but emotionally genuine — gravitas.”

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer: “What kind of movie is Juno? The rarity that plucks your heartstrings while tickling them.”