Church & State


Utah: democracy or theocracy?

(2018) Documentary (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Mark Lawrence, Peggy Tomsic, Steve Urquhart, Jim Magleby, Jennifer Dobner, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Kody Partridge, Laura Wood, Bob Evans, David Knowlton, Kate Call, Kate Kendell, Missy Larsson. Directed by Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox

 

In 2015, same-sex marriage was made legal throughout the United States, ending a fight which had been escalating over the past…well, going back to the Stonewall Riots. It marked a sea change in American attitudes towards its LGBTQ citizens as popular support for the cause grew.

One of the first salvos fired in the battle for marriage equality took place in Utah. Amendment 3, which had been approved by 66% of the predominantly Mormon voters and approved by the Church of Latter-Day Saints itself (albeit only tacitly). Mark Lawrence, a middle-aged gay man who had moved to Utah from San Francisco to care for his ailing father, had always regretted not marching for AIDS when he lived in the Bay Area in the 80s. He felt moved to do something about what he considered a morally objectionable law – and thought that if he sued the State of Utah, he would have a reasonable chance of winning on constitutional law grounds.

But nobody wanted to help him do it. Inexperienced in activism and fundraising, he founded the group Restore Our Humanity for the purpose of fundraising for the lawsuit, and set out to find someone to help set it up. He was met by stony resistance from all of the national organizations he contacted; most felt that in a state as red as Utah there was absolutely no chance they could get the law overturned. At last, he found a small law firm who was willing to take on the case, and a lawyer named Peggy Tomsic who was willing to take it on – which meant not only taking on the State of Utah but by extension, the Church of Latter-Day Saints as well (the film takes the stance that the Mormons largely control the state from a political angle – many of the state legislators are Mormons, so they do have a case).

It would turn out to be one of the first cases to be tried in a federal court on the subject of same-sex marriage and the State of Utah, feeling that they not only had the will of the people behind them but also the full force of the law, were unprepared when the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs; they were so confident in their chances that they did not have a Stay of implementation writ ready to go on, which is common practice in suits like this. Seventeen days would go by with hundreds of same-sex couples receiving marriage licenses before a stay was finally filed.

But the fight was only beginning. There was an appeal to be filed and there would be in-fighting between the legal team, the plaintiffs (which couldn’t be Lawrence since he wasn’t in a relationship at the time) and Lawrence, who eventually dissolved the organization he founded to fight Amendment 3 and said disconsolately afterwards “If I had to do it all again? I probably wouldn’t have.”

The filmmakers tell the story of the lawsuit pretty well. There is a good deal of archival footage, promotional footage from the Church of Latter-Day Saints (they declined all interview requests they received from the filmmakers) and talking head interviews. Some of the footage is chilling, such as the Mormon elder who gives his approval to someone beating up a gay man, or the repeated insistence that they have nothing against gay people and that it’s not personal, but…y’all are perverts and you need to get out of Salt Lake, pretty much.

This is very much an underdog story and it is viscerally pleasing from that point of view. Lawrence is an interesting enough subject but he can be abrasive and the filmmakers shift their focus from him to lawyer Peggy Tomsic who as a lesbian definitely had skin in the game; she had a long-time partner and the two of them were caring for a small boy that they couldn’t legally adopt because of their marital status (or lack thereof) and were well-aware that he could be snatched away from them at any moment. Her story really shows the casual cruelty, the true evil, of the stance that those proponents of the gay marriage ban took. As Tomsic says, as much as they claim it is about the welfare of the children, at the end of the day it is not because keeping kids out of a stable home with two parents benefits nobody.

The story is a fascinating one, but it is a very locally-oriented one and the documentaries that focused on the fight for marital equality on a national level will probably hold more interest. However, for those looking to dive deeper on how that came to happen against what some thought were nearly insurmountable odds, could find this worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Concise storytelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Territory covered on the national level more effectively.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was a Special Jury Award winner at the 2018 American Documentary Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Happy Prince

Papi Chulo


The new odd couple.

(2018) Dramedy (Blue Fox/Breaking GlassMatt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Michael Shepperd, Ryan Guzman, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Shaun Buchholz, Tom Beyer, Irene White, Caitlin Kimball, Marisa Szczepan, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Blaine Swen, Martin Morales, Nick Bush, Blaine Mizer, Rosemary Dominguez. Directed by John Butler

 

Loneliness does things to people. It preys on them from the inside, chews up their souls and turns them into people they won’t even recognize when they look themselves in the mirror. To be blunt, loneliness sucks.

Sean (Bomer) is an L.A. weatherman who is still reeling, six months later, after the end of his romantic relationship with ex-husband Carlos. Unable to move on, he has a mini-nervous breakdown on the air, unaccountably sobbing while reading the weather. His boss (McLendon-Covey) wisely tells him to take some time off and get himself right. Sean would rather not; taking time off with nothing to do might force him to face his loneliness and he’s clearly not ready to do this.

The last vestige of Carlos is a tree in a planter on the deck of his hillside mansion with a spectacular view; when he has the plant removed, Sean notices a circle on the deck where the plant had been. Not being handy in the least, he determines that he needs to have his deck repainted. Sean decides to hire someone from a group of migrant workers who hang out at his local hardware store, looking for work. He selects Ernesto (Patiño) and soon the two form a bond, even though Ernesto’s English is shaky and Sean’s Spanish even more so.

Sean finds himself paying Ernesto to hang out with him, going on hikes in Runyon Canyon, being his plus one at a party of his friends and even gets Ernesto to row him on a local lake. Ernesto reports all of this to his incredulous wife Linda (Campbell-Martinez), scarcely able to believe it himself but 20 bucks an hour is 20 bucks an hour, so if the gringo wants to pay him to hang out, Ernesto doesn’t mind. Besides, Ernesto is inherently a kind man who recognizes the pain Sean is in.

You can kind of see where this is going, but oddly enough it manages to get there without completely being predictable. The emphasis here is on Bomer, which is a bit of a shame; I found Ernesto to be a far more captivating character and would have liked a little more of his point of view. Still, Bomer is a strong actor and while Sean occasionally does creepy things, he still remains at least to a certain degree to be relatable.

Butler is a good filmmaker with strong shot composition and manages to insert some truly poignant moments. He also resists the temptation to make Ernesto the wise old Mexican whose folk wisdom will solve all of Sean’s problems; in fact, Ernesto doesn’t really understand a good deal of what Sean is telling him. He just half-smiles, nods and lens an ear, which is what Sean really needs.

Some reviewers have criticized the film for being racist, but to be honest I didn’t see it and I’m Hispanic. As I said, I would have appreciated more of Ernesto’s point of view, but Sean never talks down to Ernesto nor does he treat him as an inferior. The only knock that I might see against Sean is that he really doesn’t show much interest in learning Ernesto’s culture or language and doesn’t seem all that curious about Ernesto’s problems. Something tells me it would have been a much better movie if he had.

REASONS TO SEE: A bit on the oddball side but definitely warm-hearted.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of Sean’s actions are a bit creepy.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity and a bit of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mickey and the Bear