A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall

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

Pariah (2011)


Adepero Oduye considers her options.

Adepero Oduye considers her options.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, Kim Wayans, Shamika Cotton, Ray Anthony Thomas, Afton Williamson, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Rob Morgan, Nina Daniels, Jeremie Harris, Chanté Lewis, Olithéa Anglin, Joey Auzenne, Jason Dyer, Loren Hankin, Ozzie Stewart. Directed by Dee Rees

Woman Power

Discovering your own identity as a 17-year-old is difficult enough, but throw in that you’re an African-American lesbian into the mix and the obstacles are mind-boggling. Even in a relatively stable middle-class environment, becoming who you are can take the kind of courage that makes Kayla Jenner pale in comparison.

=Alike (Oduye), whose name is pronounced Ah-LEE-kay but is a misnomer because she’s anything but alike the rest of her circle, lives a dual life. The daughter of Arthur (Parnell), a police detective with a somewhat easygoing nature, and Audrey (Wayans), an extremely religious high-strung sort, she is by day a poet, a straight-A student who has earned a scholarship to a college on the West Coast (the family lives in Brooklyn). By night, she’s a budding lesbian who hangs out in a lesbian club with her openly gay friend Laura (Walker), and dresses in the uniform of a butch – loose baggy clothing, men’s underwear, doo-rag and ball cap. She only switches clothes on the bus ride home to avoid confrontation with her parents. She is also seeking to explore her sexual identity; she’s a virgin who really doesn’t want to be one anymore.

Audrey has a suspicion that her daughter might not be arrow-straight and disapproves of her relationship with Laura. Instead, she insists that she spend time with Bina (Davis), who is a devout church-going young woman. At first Alike hangs out with Bina just to placate her mother but soon begins to develop a crush on the young girl. When that leads to an unexpected physical encounter, the results are devastating.

While Audrey has suspicions, Arthur is more sanguine about his daughter’s sexual identity, although he is in complete denial about it. He believes her to be undergoing a phase and doesn’t imagine the depth of her true nature. While Alike has a better relationship with her father than her mother, she is realizing that she can’t live the life she’s leading for much longer. She needs to be who she is – only she’s not sure who that is quite yet.

Rees, who also wrote the film, based it largely on her own experiences as an African-American lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. She shows incredible promise as a filmmaker; the first ten minutes alone, in which she compactly sets up all the narrative you need to know about Akile’s background and circumstances, shows Rees’ background in short films have served her well. She is a bona fide storyteller.

She does occasionally devolve into cliches (particularly in the relationship between Arthur and Audrey) but for the most part she shows a singular voice. And while she sometimes is a bit leaden with her points about acceptance and homophobia within the African-American community, she can hardly be blamed for it in many respects although those who are less accepting of the LGBT community may find it overbearing in places.

That said, Rees gets a wondrous performance from most of her cast but particularly from Oduye on whose young shoulders most of this film rests. Oduye plays her role with immense dignity but also with incredible vulnerability. Alike is a poet with a sure voice but she is far from sure in her relationships even with those closest to her. Like most 17-year-olds, she is just trying to navigate her way through without the experience to help her avoid the rocks hidden under the water and so she occasionally wrecks her boat. Oduye portrays this without the excessive dramatics that other actresses have utilized in similar roles; to my mind she plays it more like an actual 17-year-old. Sure, there are tears but there’s also laughter and joy. This is a fully realized 17-year-old, complete with insecurities and angst galore but not so that’s all there is to her. She has a more difficult road than most but she handles it with such grace that at the end of the day you’d be proud to have her as your own daughter (or sister as the case may be).

This is a wonderfully authentic work of art that will take the viewer on an emotional ride through the life of a 17-year-old girl trying to discover what sort of woman she will be. It is not always easy and yes there are some moments that will be awkward. Not all of us will be able to relate to Alike but most of us should be able to admire her and if not understand her, at least sympathize with her. Hers is a viewpoint that should be experienced and isn’t that why some of us love movies in the first place?

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances from a mostly unknown cast. Powerful and emotional story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally hits the audience over the head with a lead pipe when a feather would have done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is pervasive sexuality and rough language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was first made as an award-winning short with much of the same cast; the original short included Wendell Pierce from The Wire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Featurettes about the importance of wardrobe to the film and to Alike’s self-identity, and a walk through the streets of Brooklyn; also interviews with the cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $769,562 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue is the Warmest Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

Proud Citizen


What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

(2014) Drama (Giant Dolphin) Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Natalie E. Cummings, Leif Erickson, Ryan Case, Judy Sanders, Sami Allison, Elliott Moore Haynes, Blakeley Burger. Directed by Thom Southerland

Florida Film Festival 2015

Being alone in a city where you know nobody can be daunting. Sometimes all you can do is play tourist, particularly when you have a lot of time on your hands. While it can be liberating to be alone in a city – you make all the decisions about where to eat, what to do, when to do it and so on – it can also reinforce the loneliness in your own life at home.

Krasi (Stoykova-Klemer) is a Bulgarian poet and playwright who has just taken second place in a theater competition. First place got to see their play produced in New York City. Second place got Lexington, Kentucky. There was no third place.

So she’s left Bulgaria for the bright lights and big city of Lexington but things almost immediately begin to get strange. First of all, Debbie (Cummings), the stage manager who was supposed to meet Krasi at the airport is quite late; she seems flustered as the play is in technical rehearsals and opens just a few days hence. She dumps Krasi at her non-descript hotel and rushes back to the theater, leaving Krasi on her own.

Not knowing anything about the area, Krasi decides to explore downtown Lexington…on foot. It’s a bit of a walk from her hotel but doable, so she puts on a nice dress and heads out, all dressed up and nowhere to go from a literal standpoint. While the downtown area is pleasant enough, there aren’t a lot of people there and those that are aren’t particularly hospitable.

The name of the play that Krasi wrote is Black Coat and is autobiographical. Andy (Erickson), the actor portraying her father seems quite nice; Jeremy (Case), the director is also flustered but friendly at least; Natalie (Burger), the young actress playing Krasi as a teen is a bit withdrawn, spending time practicing on the violin when she’s not texting her friends but is more focused on schoolwork and getting into college than on picking Krasi’s brain for insights which Andy is more prone to doing. Andy takes Krasi to a beautiful urban park in Lexington which she appreciates but his invitation to dinner seem to create a distance between them.

She takes a tour of a local horse farm which is where Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen resides. She appreciates the horse and a pony that she gets to meet very much; there are statues of horses all over downtown Lexington but no actual horses. Lucy (Allison), the tour guide, befriends Krasi and invites her over for dinner where Krasi becomes enchanted with Elliot (Haynes), her 3-year-old son. Krasi eventually spends the night.

The next day is the Fourth of July and Lucy invites Krasi to go downtown and see the festivities. There’s funnel cake and parades, and eventually fireworks but while they are there Lucy meets an ex-boyfriend. She initially doesn’t want to get his attention but Krasi makes sure that he notices her and the two converse. The ex wants to take Lucy out and Krasi insists that Lucy go, promising to take Eliot home and watch over him until she returns.

She’s eventually gone overnight and Krasi goes outside after Elliot goes to sleep to play with sparklers, neglecting to lock the back door when she comes back in. After she falls asleep, Elliot wanders outside. When Lucy does eventually return, she is panicked to find that Elliot isn’t in his bed. She eventually finds him nearby but Krasi is absolutely mortified and leaves, having a lot to do as that evening is opening night for the play in any case and then she’ll be returning home the next day.

There is more but this is more of a slice of life, five days in a different country for Krasi. Southerland, a Kentucky native, shoots this in black and white which gives it a kind of timeless feel that combines Eastern Europe with a bygone era in America. The lovely black-and-white cinematography really sets the tone for the film.

Most of the cast is made up of amateurs, several of them having local stage experience in the Lexington area but that’s it. They do a pretty solid job considering their lack of film experience. Stoykova-Klemer has no acting experience; she is a poet who has a radio show in the Lexington area whose voice caught Southerland’s ear and whose story inspired the character of Stasi. In fact, Black Coats is the name of Stoykova-Klemer’s published book of poetry which in turn inspired the play that bears its name in the movie.

Loneliness is a central theme here; most of the main characters suffer from it in one form or another. Horses are also a main element which seems pretty understandable as they are a major part of the world that is Lexington. Most of the time Krasi handles the loneliness with a smile, but she has at least one moment of self-pity during the movie which is also understandable. It’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself when you’re alone as nobody is there to do it for you.

A good deal of the movie was improvised by the actors, making the conversation sound real and unforced. The story gets a little disjointed though; although it all makes sense by the end, it meanders a bit during the five day period which is I suppose the way our own stories in real life tend to be told.

This isn’t a movie for everybody. Those who are impatient, require their movies to be loud and kinetic will find this to be boring, which it most assuredly is not. This is a reflection of life and of an outsider looking at America through an outsider’s prism. We have a tendency to take things for granted over here, the kind of things that are hard to come by in lands less blessed by freedom and plenty than we are. We sometimes fail to realize how enviable our lives can be but then again, it is as human as it gets to want more than what we already have…or at least something different.

REASONS TO GO: Amateur cast comes through. Surprisingly conversational. Slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too low-key for some. A little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucy’s 3-year-old son is her 3-year-old son in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in America
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy