Love Always, Mom


The definition of what a family is has evolved.

(2018) Documentary (Cedar Street) Tricia Russo, Greg Russo, Meghan Brenner, Kali Rogers, Lauren Gonnella, Matthew Brenner, Andrew Solomon, Kathryn Kaycoff, Stuart Leitner, Grayson Russo, Kathryn Fiore, Tom Gonnella, Raul Mena, Cathy Wambagh, Grayson Russo, Melanie Carlisle, Don Russo, Donna Russo, Lori Meyers, Carole Lieber-Wilkins, Olivia Erb. Directed by Tricia Russo, Trish Gonnella and Craig E. Shapiro

 

Director, writer and star of Love Always, Mom kicks off her film by intoning “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a mom.” Certainly that’s not unusual among little girls who see their mommies as little girls and given the maternal instinct that’s present in most women it’s not surprising that the desire is so prevalent.

Tricia would appear to have all the right qualifications; she is married to a good man and as a stable relationship. She is surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She has a good career (not discussed during the film but she works in the film industry, including a stint for Miramax Films) and she’s young and healthy – until she’s not.

She contracts breast cancer and after losing a breast appears to have overcome the odds. Then in 2011 a new metastasized tumor is found in her brain. That one is also removed but now she’s at Stage 4 cancer, a particularly deadly place to be. The drugs that she has to take to survive inhibit her hormones and make a normal pregnancy impossible.

She and Greg (her husband) decide to go the surrogacy route as adoption is out of the question – her life expectancy would be an issue in any potential adoption. However, another body blow is dealt when the doctors are unable to harvest her eggs. A separate egg donor must be found as well. We follow step by step in the process and the obstacles that fall in the way are indescribable. Russo the filmmaker handles them well, explaining things with a minimum of medical jargon.

Her courage and the selflessness of Kali (her egg donor) and Meghan (her surrogate) are remarkable. Until you watch this film or have been through this kind of surrogacy yourself, there’s no way to really describe what all three of these women go through in adequate terms. Women will have an easier time understanding than men in this case; watching what they all go through – two of them in order to help a complete stranger – is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t admire these women more.

There is also Tricia’s experience with cancer, going from good health to finding a lump to losing a breast to finding the tumor had spread to her brain. We see her high points and low, her pervasive fear that she won’t live long enough for her child to remember her, her feeling that she might not even live long enough to see the child born. Her perseverance and strength are truly remarkable; any misogynist politician who explains that the reason women aren’t paid at an equal rate to men because they lack the physical and mental strength that men have is truly feeding the nation a crock of feces. Either they’re ignorant of how deep the well of strength flows in women or they’re deeply frightened that if women take charge these old white men will be left by the wayside. Maybe they should be.

While sometimes this feels a bit like a home movie (which it essentially is) and sometimes the filmmakers don’t provide enough context particularly regarding the cost of surrogacy financially (which is high – the Russo family shelled out over $130,000 for the egg donor, the surrogate and the legal and medical fees) which is beyond the reach of the majority of Americans. Still this film and now her son Grayson will remain a more than satisfactory legacy for Tricia Russo; regardless of how long or short the remainder of her life is.

Note that the film has no distribution as of yet; it is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit. Hopefully it will get some sort of distribution at some point and be available either theatrically or on VOD. Regardless, this is a movie worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very informative about the processes of breast cancer and infertility. The cinematography is beautiful throughout. Tricia, Meghan and Kali are all incredible women whose courage and selflessness are examples to us all.
REASONS TO STAY: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pink Ribbons, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ramen Heads

Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

Miss You Already


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Jacqueline Bisset, Tyson Ritter, Mem Ferda, Noah Huntley, Janice Acquah, Charlotte Ubben, Shola Adewusi, Honor Kneafsey, Anjli Mohindra, Ryan Lennon Baker, Joanna Bobin, Eileen Davies, Sophie Holland, Charlotte Hope, Frances de la Tour, Lucy Morton. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Often Hollywood puts out buddy flicks to explore the relationship between two people. More often than not it is of a pair of male friends, generally in stressful situations. Women tend to be more in romantic situations when filmmakers capture their friendships with other women.

Lily (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore) have been friends for, well, like, forever. Jess, an American girl whose Dad had been transferred to London, has grown up to be an environmental activist. She lives on a houseboat on the Thames with her boyfriend Jago (Considine) who is busy trying to get her pregnant, which turns out to be a daunting task (who knew it would be so hard getting Barrymore pregnant?) while Lily is a rock and roll publicist who has married Kip (Cooper), a one-time rocker himself who has settled down to create a successful business. Lily has two kids, a boy and a girl.

But while their lives have been great to this point, life (as it often does) is about to throw a wicked curveball at them; Lily has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lily, who has quite a bit of vanity inherited from her TV actress mother (Bisset), stresses her way through chemo, hair loss, and wig selection. By her side through all of it is Jess, there to babysit her kids, make them healthy meals they don’t want to eat and offer emotional support for her best friend.

But things aren’t rosy. Lily is unraveling at the seams as the disease runs its course. She lashes out, especially after enduring a double mastectomy which her husband is unable to deal with. Intimacy goes out the window and maybe their marriage with it. Their friendship is sorely tested and with revelations during an impromptu trip to the Moors (in an effort to recapture their wild impetuous youth), perhaps destroyed beyond repair – just when they need each other most.

Hardwicke is best known for directing the original Twilight film. One of the things I really liked about the film is that she cast Barrymore, who generally plays flighty impulsive characters, as essentially the stable, sober one while Collette, who often plays the reasonable character, as the free-spirited one. There is also real chemistry between the two women, making their friendship believable which is at the center of why the film works.

Barrymore is sometimes a little too cloying for my taste but she is much more centered here in giving one of her best performances in years. Barrymore excels when she has a character who is not just a flighty little minx with a heart of gold; she’s a smart actress who can be deceptively intelligent which I quite suspect is very much what she’s like in person – not that I’m ever going to know. She does rock Jess this time out.

However, it is Collette who has the meatier role and the veteran actress runs with it. It would be easy to make Lily a melodramatic martyr, a collection of cancer-related tics and Collette chooses not to. Lily is terrified of dying, even more so of losing her hair and her breasts and occasionally acts out. More than occasionally, actually, but totally understandable.

The progression of the cancer is handled matter-of-factly as we see the ravaging of the body that the disease commits. One of the things the movie addresses is how breasts are often tied in with a woman’s self-image; when Lily’s breasts are taken, her self-image is severely shaken. This is definitely a movie that should win the commendations of breast cancer awareness groups worldwide.

Personally, I think that a case of tissues should be handed out at the ticket office. The movie is cathartic to the max, and anyone who likes a good cry at the movies will come away more than satisfied. While the movie drifts into occasional rom-com cliches, and some of the action feels a bit forced, this is one of those movies that is delightful and touching, funny and sad, and at the core is a very real relationship between two women you might long to hang out with yourself.

Sure, some of this is awfully contrived and some of this is awfully manipulative, but it is well-acted enough and serious enough to make it worth your while. This is one of those movies that upon first examination doesn’t seem to be much more than typical, but once you plop your butt down in the seat it becomes much, much more. Don’t let the subject matter scare you off; this is one of the better movies about women and their relationships that you’re likely to see.

REASONS TO GO: Authentic chemistry between Barrymore and Collette. Cathartic. Excellent performance by Collette. Sober treatment of breasts and how they relate to female self-image.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally cliché.  Forces when it doesn’t need to.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexual content and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Aniston and Rachel Weisz were both at one time cast as Jess but both dropped out, leading to the casting of Barrymore.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Office

Elegy


Elegy

Sir Ben Kingsley can hardly wait to film his sex scenes with Penelope Cruz.

(Goldwyn) Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry, Charlie Rose. Directed by Isabel Coixet

As we get older, we tend to desperately fight against the aging process by resolutely not acting our age. In some cases, we do it without realizing we’re doing it but in others we are completely aware of our motivations.

David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a professor of literature, a published author and a radio show host on the subject of books. His best friend, George O’Hearn (Hopper) is one of the world’s most acclaimed poets. He lives in a comfortable New York apartment (the kind with a stunning view) filled with art and books, made for lounging around with the New York Times on a Sunday morning with a coffee and a bagel from the neighborhood deli.

David abandoned his wife and son (Sarsgaard) years ago and seems to have been in a mid-life crisis since then. He has a tendency to pick one female student each semester to seduce, prudently waiting for the grades to go out before inviting his whole class to a party at his apartment and dazzling his prey with intellectual insights and an invitation to get together for coffee or an off-Broadway play. This way, there’s no hint of impropriety.

This semester’s target is Consuela (Cruz), a Cuban-American girl who is a lot different than the starry-eyed co-eds he usually aims for. She is a bit older and surprisingly, sees there might be more to her professor than an aging lothario.

The two embark on what is a highly physical relationship, which at first suits David fine as that is really all he wants. But as they spend more time together, a more emotional bond begins to take form. David, against all odds, falls in love.

With love comes jealousy, and David’s inherent self-doubt begets an irrational obsession that Consuela might be seeing a more attractive, virile younger man. He begins to stalk her a little bit which doesn’t sit too well with her. When she asks him to show up at a graduation party, he realizes that everything he fears may be waiting for him at that party – and that everything that is truly terrifying may be waiting for him if he doesn’t go.

This is based on a novel by Phillip Roth, who quite frankly isn’t the easiest author to adapt to the screen. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the screenplay, does a very good job and let’s face it; he gets one of the best actors in the world to work with. Kingsley has to take a character that is basically unlikable and get the audience to at least relate to him. He is quite successful in that we are motivated to continue along for the ride.

The surprise is Penelope Cruz. An Oscar winner for Vicki Christina Barcelona, she takes a part that is far more sexual than any other she has ever tackled and makes it her own. In fact, I think its fair to say that you will go away from this film remembering Cruz even more than you will Kingsley, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. For my money, she has in the last few years become one of the best actresses in film today, up there with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslett, Hilary Swank, Helen Mirren and Amy Adams for consistent quality performances from a leading lady.

The setting is the New York literary scene, an environment that I as a writer have always found fascinating. Not everyone will share that fascination; the scene has its share of narcissists and self-aggrandizers, enough to give it the smell of hoity-toity. Still, I can’t really fault a film for catering to the intelligent, and that’s what Elegy does. You may not love everything that happens on-screen, but there’s a certain honesty here and plenty of subtle layers – I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Clarkson, who plays David’s longtime mistress who shares his fondness for sex without emotional ties and is shocked that her paramour is getting into a situation that is an emotional minefield.

Every character here adds nuance, and I appreciate that a great deal. While this isn’t a movie I would recommend unreservedly to everybody, it is a movie I can recommend to anyone who likes their movies smart and thought-provoking as this does on the subject of men and aging. I hope I won’t be seducing young women at Ben Kingsley’s age; for one thing, I’m happily married and plan on remaining so. For another thing, I think I have a higher opinion of women than David does. For yet another thing I don’t have the gravitas and alluring charm of Kingsley so chances are I won’t be as successful as he is at it.

WHY RENT THIS: Stirring performances from Cruz and Kingsley. A literate and well-written script that doesn’t talk down (mostly) to its audience.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The New York intellectual setting may turn off some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a lot of sexuality, as well as some rough language. Definitely for adults and mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David tells Consuela that she looks like Goya’s Maja Desnuda. Penelope Cruz played Pepita Tudo (who was possibly the model for the painting) in Volaverunt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Mary Poppins (!)

Home


Home

Marcia Gay Harden has just told this little girl that kids suck.

(Monterey Media) Marcia Gay Harden, Eulala Scheel, Michael Gaston, Candy Buckley, Pamela Jane Henning, Paul F. Nolan, Thomas Roy, Marian Seldes. Directed by Mary Haverstick

Home is where the heart is. Have you ever stopped to examine that statement? It’s meant to convey that home is the hearthstone where love resides, but the heart is so much more complicated. It is the source of everything from love to hate. If home is where the heart is, home is where the hate is as well.

Inga (Harden) is a housewife in 1969’s Eastern Pennsylvania in an area that is predominantly Amish. She is a breast cancer survivor, but that was child’s play compared to what’s going on in her house. Her workaholic husband Herman (Gaston) scarcely pays attention to her anymore. The two of them constantly bicker. She takes solace in her close-knit relationship with her daughter Indigo (Scheel) but even that is strained lately.

Inga turns to comfort from the bottle, and that strains the relationship with her daughter even further. The cancer has made a re-appearance, and Inga can’t help but dwell on the last days of her mother (Buckley), wasting away from cancer and morphine addiction, particularly as she tours the house of an elderly woman (Seldes) whose home reminds her of her childhood abode. She wanders through the home, flashing back to her childhood and is more than eager to purchase the home and restore it, but Herman, whose business is failing, refuses and the battle begins anew.

Much of the narration is done through poetry, ostensibly written by Inga but in reality written by the filmmakers mother, Mary Stuart Haverstick. There’s no doubt that the movie is inspired at least in part by the filmmaker’s own experience and it shows in some of the raw emotion of several of the scenes.

Inga is a marvelous mom when she is sober, flying kites and lying in beautiful grassy fields with her daughter, watching the clouds blow past (is there anything more wonderful than a summer’s day in a grassy field, watching clouds with your mom?) but when she drinks, she is Beelzebub. She lashes out at her daughter and all the demons, all the disappointments and frustration come burbling up to be spewed at the most defenseless one in the house.

This is a treatise on home and motherhood, and to the credit of writer/director Haverstick this essay is unflinching and honest, perhaps to a fault. What it also is (occasionally) is maudlin and melodramatic. There are times I wondered if I was watching the Lifetime Movie Channel; this would fit in nicely there.

For my part, I found Harden’s performance to be outstanding. In most other years there would be some Oscar buzz for it, but this came out during a particularly strong year for actress performances; that and because it was distributed by a smaller outfit, it was little seen outside of New York. Nonetheless, as flawed as it is (and it is), there is much to recommend Home for cinephiles. Movies like this can capture your attention and imagination, leading to further reflection on the meaning of home and the relationship between a mother and her child. A movie that inspires you to think? The horror!

WHY RENT THIS: Harden gives a tremendous performance. The film carries a very authentic feeling for the most part.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit on the melodramatic side, and sometimes sinks to a Lifetime movie-of-the-week level.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes, particularly one in the final third of the movie when Harden goes on a drunken rant against her daughter. Some children may find the things she says to her daughter disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scheel is Harden’s daughter in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Twilight