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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Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!