Dec 22

“Love Actually” Is All Around: A Holiday Favorite

Love Actually is irresistible. You’d have to be Ebenezer Scrooge not to walk out smiling. Claudia Puig, IFC Center

And now, instead of walking out smiling, you can smile in your pj’s and never leave the couch.

Although I agree with the above review excerpt, when Love Actually was in theaters in 2003 it actually received a lot of negative reviews. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming an enduring favorite of many.

Perhaps you’ve seen the often parodied “cue card” scene. One of my favorites is from SNL following Hillary Clinton‘s presidential election loss to you know who. It’s called “Hillary Actually,” starring Kate McKinnon, and still today rings bitterly sweet, funny, and so relevant:

For Those Who Haven’t Seen Love Actually

Set mostly in London in the five weeks leading up to Christmas, Love Actually features a bunch of interconnected stories with a theme of—you guessed it—love, actually. And there’s an old song by The Troggs that figures prominently, “Love Is All Around,” that one main character, a recording artist, adapts for the holiday.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, the film boasts lots of big names—Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman among them.

More from Claudia Puig:

Among the better scenarios are Grant as a bachelor prime minister who is too busy to look for a wife. He surprises himself (and everyone else) by being smitten with a down-to-earth staffer (Martine McCutcheon), a slightly more full-figured gal than average. There’s an unexpectedly bittersweet bond between the luminous Keira Knightley and her husband’s reserved best friend (Andrew Lincoln). And for tearjerking moments, no one can beat Thompson’s performance as the stalwart wife of the straying Rickman. A Christmas Eve scene showcases her talent for comedy, pathos and pluck, all the while breaking our hearts.

The sum of Love Actually is greater than its parts. The film is bookended by shots of ordinary people affectionately greeting and tearfully seeing each other off at an airport. The device is a bit forced, but ultimately touching. The same could be said for the movie as a whole, which winningly demonstrates that despite all odds, love is indeed all around us.

If you’re in the mood for Love, actually or otherwise, I believe this movie is worth it. I’ve seen it twice myself.

Roger EbertChicago Sun-Times: “The movie’s only flaw is also a virtue: It’s jammed with characters, stories, warmth and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn’t want to leave anything out.”

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.

Dec 16

“You Can Count On Me”: Brother and Sister Reconnect

For all the bullying inspirational slogans hurled at us about never giving up on your dream, following your bliss and today being the first day of the rest of your life, the fact remains that most people’s lives run on fairly narrow tracks. And in the real world, as opposed to self-help fantasyland, once you find yourself on a track, it’s awfully hard to get off, even if it’s headed nowhere in particular. Stephen Holden, reviewing You Can Count On MeThe New York Times,  

On the occasion of the underseen film The Skeleton Twins (see previous post) being released on DVD, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another brother/sister film, the character-driven You Can Count On Me, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Not only was it one of the best movies of 2000 but also one of the best ever about sibling relationships. 

In brief, single-mom Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney), gets an unexpected visit from Terry (Mark Ruffalo), her brother and only sibling. FYI, their parents were killed in a car accident when they were kids.

SAMMY

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Married and divorced at a young age, she’s an overprotective mother to her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy conceals from her son any info about his absentee father, but the curious, susceptible boy stubbornly harbors romantic notions about him. Her emotional involvement with Bob (Jon Tenney), a goodhearted but not terribly exciting man, only partially fulfills her needs as a woman.”

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “…(S)he’s having trouble with her nitpicking boss (perennial manchild Matthew Broderick), who’s unsympathetic toward her child issues and objects to such things as purple-colored text on computer screens.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Ms. Linney’s Samantha may be a responsible mother and churchgoing Catholic, but we learn that she was a wild teenager who has had to choke back her rebellious instincts in order to bring up her son. Even now, her innate rebelliousness still manifests itself in ways both small (she secretly smokes cigarettes) and large (she recklessly initiates an affair with her new boss, a persnickety straight arrow with a pregnant wife).”

TERRY

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “Terry is her easy-come, easy-go brother, one of those charmers who drives you nuts because you love him but you can’t count on them.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “He’s depicted as an irresponsible, self-destructive man with a penchant for getting into fights and being arrested. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind, Terry comes home to borrow money.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, ew.com: “He has pushed away grief by not committing anywhere, to anyone, and strewing mess in his wake.”

TERRY AND HIS NEPHEW RUDY

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “Sammy, who needs someone to watch Rudy, talks her brother into doing the honors. But although Terry connects wonderfully with Rudy, his idea of child care is hardly gleaned from Dr. Spock. He thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette, cursing like a sailor and advising Rudy to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as he’s old enough.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The culminating event, an excruciating, brilliantly executed scene of emotional chaos as old personal wounds are ripped open, is Terry’s impulsive, ill-advised decision to take Rudy on a surprise visit to meet his roughneck biological father (Josh Lucas) whom Samantha has built up as a hero to the boy.”

SAMMY AND TERRY

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Samantha is furious and disappointed by her brother’s lack of direction and behavioral sloppiness. He in turn is contemptuous of her for remaining stuck in Scottsville, whose small-town atmosphere he finds suffocating.”

Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle:

As adults, the siblings maintain their childhood confidant-adversary relationship. In one scene, they share a joint and a big secret before a casual remark turns into a testy exchange about Sammy’s parenting abilities. Later, when Sammy sends a clergyman to counsel the aimless Terry, he seems receptive, all the while plotting revenge on his sister. Just as any kid brother would.

The safety of their renewed family bond lets each sibling branch out. Sammy, so compulsively organized that she files personal correspondence along with her tax returns, rediscovers a wild side and engages in some surprising acts. Her brother, oblivious at first to Sammy’s need for him, warms to the idea of a family bond and becomes a father figure to Sammy’s son.

Nov 04

“Kinsey”: Human Sexuality Research Before Masters and Johnson

Before Masters and Johnson (see last week’s post on Masters of Sex) was sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who wrote both Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

Although I can’t personally vouch for the new series now on Showtime, I can for Bill Condon‘s biopic Kinsey (2004), in which the famous sex researcher is played by Liam Neeson and wife/colleague Clara by Laura Linney. She’s “Mac” to him; he’s “Prok” to her.

Kinsey’s first line in the movie, “I’ve been reading up on gall wasps,” clues us in that he was an insect academic at Indiana University before veering into the study of human sexual practices. Why’d he make this transition? One reason is that he was bugged (pun intended) by what passed as sex education in those days.

Too, having been raised by a moralizing father (John Lithgow), Kinsey had no use for judgmentalism. David Edelstein, Slate: “The movie boils down, for me, to a single, endlessly reverberating phrase: ‘Morality disguised as fact,’ which is what Kinsey thinks of sex education in the late 1930s.”

So, from gall wasps to a course on sexuality in marriage he goes—and it’s a big hit with the students. The university president (Oliver Platt) then supports Kinsey in his plans to study men’s sexuality, which is aided by several male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, and Chris O’Donnell).

Below you can see the trailer:

THE ERA

As noted by critic Roger Ebert, in Kinsey’s era “it was more or less universally agreed that masturbation would make you go blind or insane, that homosexuality was an extremely rare deviation, that most sex was within marriage and most married couples limited themselves to the missionary position.” He continues:

Kinsey interviewed thousands of Americans over a period of years, and concluded: Just about everybody masturbates, 37 percent of men have had at least one homosexual experience, there is a lot of premarital and extramarital sex, and the techniques of many couples venture well beyond the traditional male-superior position.

THE MAN

Roger Ebertrogerebert.com:

…Kinsey was an impossible man. He studied human behavior but knew almost nothing about human nature, and was often not aware that he was hurting feelings, offending people, making enemies or behaving strangely. He had tunnel vision, and it led him heedlessly toward his research goals without prudent regard for his image, his family and associates, and even the sources of his funding.

While he’s advocating freshness, freedom and sense in the public arena, Kinsey is mired in moral questions at home. He explores his homosexual side with one of his assistants, much to the shock of Clara, and he encourages sexual experimentation among his followers. Is he the liberated man he asks others to be? What exactly is liberation? Kinsey finds himself caught in the endless conundrum of life.

THE COUPLE

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Ultimately, ‘Kinsey’ comes down to Prok and Mac, a prickly, not-always-likable but profoundly believable couple going through their own sexual revolution and living to tell the tale. In the end, they walk in the woods, still enthralled by the natural world that first drew them together. ‘It’s impossible to measure love,’ the man who helped America understand sex tells his wife. ‘When it comes to love, we’re all in the dark.’

ONE CONCLUSION

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

I can’t think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused…

In undertaking his sex research, Kinsey set out to document what was normal, and discovered a universe of variation. In publishing his findings, he horrified some readers and titillated others, but the implications of his work, as presented in this humane and serious film, go far beyond mammalian physiology or human behavior. Each of us is different, and none of us is alone.

Oct 28

“Morning”: Leland Orser’s Film About Couple’s Loss of Child

Written by Leland Orser, the film Morning is apparently a downer. But then so is intense grief—and that’s what it’s about (Morning/Mourning?).

The plot, from IMDB:

Five days in the life of an American couple immediately following the accidental death of their child. An every day story of tragedy, loss, acceptance, hope and renewal. ‘Morning’ follows the divergent paths of Mark (Leland Orser) and Alice Munroe (Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they circle each other in a heart-breaking pas-de-deux of grief before finally coming to grips with their shared loss.

Rex Reed, New York Observer, sets up the story structure of Morning:

Told in four separate sections that begin with an alarm clock’s brutal ring at 6:30 a.m., the film’s chapters are connected by the same ritual: An elderly, lame, but loyal housekeeper makes a long trip by bus to an elegant home in Los Angeles and can’t get in…And, each day, the housekeeper returns, ready for work, dutifully trying to ease her employers’ grief, stacking their unread newspapers in a neat pile on the porch and sliding the unopened mail into the mail slot, feeling helpless. Finally, she sits down on the steps and lights a candle, sharing sorrow and loss in her own quiet way—without speaking a single line of dialogue.

Tripplehorn, by the way, is also Orser’s spouse in real life. Watch the Morning trailer:

The Character of Mark Munroe

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “Mr. Orser, the excellent actor from the cast of E.R., plays Mark, the husband who locks himself in his bedroom, chews sleeping pills and pain killers like mints and crawls around on the kitchen floor in his underwear eating Fruit Loops, ignoring the phone and the doorbell.”

Stephen HoldenNew York Times: “Mark hardly speaks, preferring to drink, take pills by the handful and vent his anguish by piling up vases of flowers in the center of the living room and demolishing them with a golf club.”

Alice Munroe

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “Alice, the wife (played by the luminous, graceful Jeanne Tripplehorn), checks into an antiseptic, impersonal hotel room and wanders aimlessly around one of those blindingly over-lit California malls buying children’s clothes and leaving them behind in shopping bags. She drives through traffic with the windows in her station wagon rolled up, screaming.”

The Grief Counselor (played by Laura Linney)

David LewisSan Francisco Chronicle: “During their riveting scene together, no life-changing advice is rendered, and Alice struggles to make any sense. The conversation is basically nothing – and everything.”

Mary, the Friend

Stephen HoldenNew York Times: “The most words spoken by any character belong to Alice’s best friend, Mary (Julie White), whose well-meaning advice offered in a tone of forced cheer, drives Alice to scream in frustration.”

The Housekeeper

Sara Stewart, New York Post: “…(N)one [of the rest of the cast] gets as much screen time as their elderly housekeeper (Gina Morelli) as she plods to and from the house every day. I found her weariness contagious.”

Selected Reviews

David LewisSan Francisco Chronicle:

…Orser, to his credit, never resorts to psychobabble, cheap sentiment or emotional shortcuts…

On the surface, this may seem like a bleak film, because it’s so raw. But ultimately this is a movie about the mysterious ways in which we find a path toward healing, and its beautiful final moments stay with you.

Joe LeydonVariety: “…an initially intriguing but ultimately exhausting tale of grieving parents left quite literally dazed and confused in the wake of their young son’s death.”

Stephen HoldenNew York Times: “…one of the more harrowing explorations of grief ever brought to the screen. By the end of its 95 minutes, only a faint ray of light has penetrated the gloom.”