Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled

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Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche