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:

Mar 13

“Maps to the Stars”: A Wacky Therapist and More

Most critics agree: fans of Julianne Moore will like her performance as actress Havana Segrand in the new film Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg.

Other tidbits about Maps that have gotten my attention? In addition to loads of family dysfunctional issues, there’s also John Cusack as a wacky therapist. From Focus Features:

Meet the Weiss family, who are making their way in Hollywood rife with money, fame, envy, and relentless hauntings. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a famed TV self-help therapist with an A-list celebrity clientele. Meanwhile, Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams) has her work cut out managing the career of their disaffected child-star son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a fresh graduate of rehab at age 13. Yet unbeknownst to them, another member of the Weiss family has arrived in town – mysteriously scarred and tormented Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), just released from a psych ward and ready to start again. She soon works her way into a friendship with a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and becomes personal assistant to unraveling actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is beset by the ghost of her legendary mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon). But Agatha is on a quest for redemption – and even in this realm of the artificial, and the unearthly, she’s determined to find it, no matter what it takes.

And, a critic’s view from Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:

“…a macabre ensemble comedy of cruelty, insecurity and self-hate…a satire of contemporary Hollywood, with echoes of Sunset Boulevard and Postcards from the Edge, depicting a communal nervous breakdown in a town so enclosed and incestuous that everyone is part of the same symbolic sibling-hood of fear. This is one, big, unhappy dysfunctional family, in which guilty souls are afraid of failure and haunted by the return of the repressed. Every surface has a sickly sheen of anxiety; every face is a mask of suppressed pain.

You can see the trailer below:

Havana Segrand and Her “Therapy”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: Described both as “…an actress perpetually on the verge of coming apart” and “a Santa Ana wind of need, neurosis and solipsism,” Havana uses several types of therapy: “a combination of massage, est and California Freudianism — with Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help guru who happens to be Benjie and Agatha’s father.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “Taking her self-esteem to a new low, she is auditioning for a remake of a 50s melodrama starring her late movie-star mother Clarice – whom she now believes abused her, thanks to sessions with creepy new-age therapist Stafford…”

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “Havana’s regular therapist/masseuse/TV psychologist…presents himself as selfless and caring, but seems determined to crack open repressed minds mainly so he can root around and provoke extreme reactions. (When Stafford manipulates Havana’s body on a yoga mat, Cronenberg’s staging suggests sex, sometimes rape.)”

Various Themes

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…clearly intended as a sharp satire of Hollywood ambition, vanity, avarice, and emptiness…”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…[Bruce] Wagner’s script is content to go after easy targets: child actors, Scientology, revolving-door rehab programs, New Age-y pseudo-spiritualism. With all due respect to the fine work they do, acting is a line of work that tends to attract broken people: those who thrive under false identities, forever seeking public reinforcement.”

(The Mixed) Overall Reviews

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “With its muddled plot twists, ridiculous dialogue (by Bruce Wagner), easy targets (Scientology is always good) and preposterous view of La La Land, Maps to the Stars is part satire, part soap opera, part ghost story, and totally moronic.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…Part showbiz sendup, part ghost story, part dysfunctional-family drama, the movie instead comes across as so much jaded mumbo-jumbo.”

Jon Frosch, The Atlantic: “…Maps to the Stars is so crisply directed, furiously paced and gleefully performed, that you go along for the ride.”

Jan 16

“Still Alice”: Julianne Moore with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Alice is too young to assume that a momentary lapse might be an early sign of dementia. And then, over the length of a single devastating close-up, Alice learns that the rest of her life will be devoted to what she later refers to as ‘the art of losing.” David Ehrlich, Time Out, about Still Alice

Last Sunday Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe for her lead performance in Still Alice, the new film based on neuroscientist Lisa Genova‘s 2009 novel about a 50-year-old married professor who finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Co-written and co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice opens nationwide today.

The trailer below opens with Alice having confusing memory lapses; she later starts to come to terms with what’s actually happening to her and her family, which includes her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three adult kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish).

ALICE

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “’Still Alice’ is about how she reacts to her own deterioration–how she constantly reassesses it and figures out how to cope. She doesn’t always do it with quiet dignity, which is refreshing; sometimes she even uses the disease to manipulate those around her or get out of a social occasion she’d rather avoid.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Moore is especially good at the wordless elements of this transformation, allowing us to see through the changing contours of her face what it is like when your mind empties out. When Alice says at one point ‘I feel like I can’t find myself,’ it is all the more upsetting because we’ve already watched it happen.”

THE DIAGNOSIS AND PROGRESSION OF THE DISEASE

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Determined to continue her research and lifestyle uninterrupted, with the full support of her husband (Alec Baldwin, in one of his more sensitive and totally natural performances) and family, Alice eschews the terror of what lies ahead and embraces logic and common sense.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “It’s not until Alice learns that the disease is hereditary that the severity of her situation sets in: As if it weren’t bad enough that she will eventually cease to recognize her own children, Alice may also be responsible for passing the condition along to them.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “With what seems like shocking rapidity — the film’s chronology is appropriately fuzzy — Alice slides from a witty, intelligent, capable adult into a fragile and confused shadow of her former self.”

ALICE’S FAMILY

David Ehrlich, Time Out: “Perhaps owing to the fact that Glatzer and Westmoreland know a thing or two about living with a debilitating disease (the former has ALS), the movie always evinces an acute understanding of how pity can be the most painful thing to feel for someone you love.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times:”…(I)f it wasn’t for costar Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia, ‘Still Alice’ wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally effective as it is. Moore and Stewart have been off-screen friends for more than a decade, and that bond only enhances the work they do here.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Glatzer and Westmoreland don’t need to stack the emotional deck on Alice’s behalf…They just leave the camera on Moore’s beautiful but increasingly faraway face, and our tears come on their own.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The story is sad and sincerely told, but it is too removed from life to carry the full measure of pain that Alice deserves.”

Christy Lemirerogerebert.com: “Co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don’t shy away from the steady and terrifying way the disease can take hold of a person and strip away her ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. But they also don’t tell this story with much nuance or artistry in adapting Lisa Genova’s novel.”

Oct 07

“Don Jon”: Addictions Include Internet Porn and Romance

“Sure, sex is fun, but not nearly as satisfying as porn, Jon explains in the film’s flashy opening voiceover, articulating a troubling value shift few have had the courage to raise…” (Peter Debruge, Variety, about Don Jon)

Don Jon is a new comedy that’s essentially about certain addictions. Internet porn is one, the other is romance. Each is shown to have the potential to set up unrealistic expectations. Each can thus block one’s ability to achieve genuine closeness with another person.

The official movie description:

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a strong, handsome, good old fashioned guy. His buddies call him Don Jon due to his ability to ‘pull’ a different woman every weekend, but even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss he finds alone in front of the computer watching pornography. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a bright, beautiful, good old fashioned girl. Raised on romantic Hollywood movies, she’s determined to find her Prince Charming and ride off into the sunset. Wrestling with good old fashioned expectations of the opposite sex, Jon and Barbara struggle against a media culture full of false fantasies to try and find true intimacy in this unexpected comedy written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Rounding out the main cast of characters are a few others. Jon’s seen at family dinners with his “caricatured macho dad (Tony Danza) and hysterical mom (Glenne Headly)” (David DenbyThe New Yorker). And an older woman played by Julianne Moore eventually enters the picture and apparently serves as some sort of guide to him.

What’s Don Jon Being Compared To?

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Where Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ took the more obtuse art film approach to this sex-obsessed phenom, Gordon-Levitt weaves the topic into a broadly accessible romantic comedy, one that ultimately uses its in-your face style to sneak a few old-fashioned insights about how self-centered guys can learn to respect their partners.”

What Do We Learn About Porn Addiction?

For someone who gets continual gratification from porn, dating before sex is deemed the “long game.”

Robert Weiss, LCSW, Director of the Sexual Recovery Institute (The Huffington Post): “Even the way that Gordon-Levitt treats pornographic imagery in the film–as a rapid-fired succession of different, astoundingly attractive women– mirrors the way that porn addicts report behaving, in that they are always switching from one video to another, always searching for something newer, better and more exciting. For a porn addict, each hot new image hits home like a blast of crack cocaine. Each new image is a fix, and the more you fix, the better you feel.”

What Do We Learn About Addiction to Romance?

Weiss also has this observation: “Barbara’s obsession is as potentially real as Jon’s, even if it’s portrayed in comic fashion, as we have long known that women tend to value an emotional connection more than sexual body parts. Thus, Barbara objectifies romantic relationships in much the same way that Don Jon objectifies breasts and buttocks, and with the same basic results, too, in that no one in the real world can live up to the unrealistic fantasies.”

May 08

“What Maisie Knew” Will Require Some Therapy Someday

What Maisie Knew is a film adaptation of a Henry James novel updated to a contemporary setting. Neither mothers nor fathers, however, are at all idealized.

A Very Brief Summary of What Maisie Knew

From the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Maisie’s parents’ relationship disintegrates. They remarry, they inappropriately place her in the middle of their issues, they leave most of the subsequent caretaking to their new spouses.

The Child

Linda Holmes, NPR: “There’s no mugging and no sobbing; she is heartbreaking because she is transparently processing the fact that while her parents are willing to fight over her, they will not in fact choose her, over either their other interests or their conflict.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Scribes Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne approximate the intimate child’s perspective James achieved on the page by placing Maisie (Aprile) in every scene, continually reminding the viewer of the invisible trauma being inflicted by two thoughtless individuals on the person most deserving of their care and attention.”

There’s Therapy in Maisie’s Future

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “She might as well be invisible, but she hears everything. And here’s the only good news: Onata Aprile, the young actress who plays the adorable moppet trapped in this bitter custody tug-of-war, is heartbreakingly good. All you have to do is take one look into her wide, sad eyes to know she’s internalizing all the vicious white noise. You also suspect that she’s going to spend most of her teenage years in marathon therapy sessions.”

The Parents of What Maisie Knew

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(H)er parents, fiery-tempered rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and perpetually distracted art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), have divorced, leaving their soft-spoken, well-behaved daughter to drift between their respective Manhattan apartments. Each parent wants custody for all the wrong reasons, as it soon becomes infuriatingly clear that, despite their superficial expressions of affection, they’re more interested in using Maisie as a weapon against each other than in serving her best interests.”

The Dad

Sheila O’Malleyrogerebert.com: “Steve Coogan, in his few scenes, is terrifying. It’s a great portrayal of unfettered narcissism. He has one moment, in the back of a cab, saying goodbye to Maisie, that is as good as anything he has ever done. For just a moment, you see him understand, and actually feel, his own terrible nature.”

The Mom

Justin Chang, Variety: “It’s Susanna, trying to convince Maisie and herself that she’s a good mother, who arguably winds up doing the greater damage, and Moore acts with a white-hot fury that sends waves of resentment and self-pity flying in all directions.”

The New Spouses

Rex Reed, New York Observer:

…Susanna’s new husband is a sweet, sensitive bartender named Lincoln (versatile, appealing Alexander Skarsgård) who shows Maisie the kind of sincere compassion she never had from her own dad, and Beale runs away with the nanny, a kind-hearted girl named Margo (Joanna Vanderham) whose maternal instincts seem genuine instead of the phony play-acting Maisie gets from her real mother. At first, these replacements fill tertiary positions, but eventually they do something Maisie has never experienced—they become real friendsOne of the things Maisie learns is that loneliness is not restricted to only one age, gender or legal document. Both Lincoln and Margo are neglected and unloved. Maisie has always been the one left out of the equation, the lockbox where the grownups deposit their fears, tears and anxieties. Surprisingly, it is now up to a child to make the adults feel wanted. Unwillingly, they eventually become playmates, guardians and surrogate parents to the little girl who needs them, and the two most unconditionally devoted people Maisie knows are the two people who have landed in her life by accident.