Not Going Quietly


Ady Barkan having a dad moment with his young son.

(2021) Documentary (Greenwich) Ady Barkan, Racheal King, Elizabeth Jaff, Cory Booker, Helen Brosnan, Brad Kleffer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tracey Corder, Nate Smith, Kamala Harris, Carl Barkan, Ana Maria Archila. Directed by Nicholas Bruckman

 

There are those who consider COVID-19 little worse than the average flu (rightly or wrongly) but one disease that everyone agrees is absolutely horrible is ALS. It is a fatal degenerative disease that slowly robs the victim of every facility and sense, until they are imprisoned in a body that is unable to do anything, all the while retaining full cognizant function. There is no cure and no treatment for it; all one can do is ride it out to the bitter end. Both baseball Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig and Nobel-winning physicist Stephen Hawking were among the most notable people to contract the disease.

Ady Barkan was a progressive activist and lawyer who worked for a number of causes. An engaging young man with a room-blinding smile, he had a young wife and a beautiful baby boy. But then, the 32 year old was given the devastating diagnosis; ALS, and doctors figured he had three to five years to live.

But worse still than that diagnosis was dealing with the medical insurance companies. Doctors prescribed a breathing apparatus that was absolutely essential for Baran’s continued living, a device they termed “uncontroversial,” but his insurance company denied it as “experimental.” Frustrated and angry, Barkan chose to channel his frustrations into activism and began advocating for universal health care. And then, Trump got elected and Barkan, wo was going to become more and more dependent on the health care system for his very survival, realized he was in serious trouble.

A chance meeting on a plane home saw a conversation between Barkan and then-Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona in which Barkan pleaded with the Republican politician to “be a hero” and vote against the Trump tax cut (a plea that ultimately proved futile). However the media-savvy activist Liz Jaff, who filmed the encounter, co-founded the Be a Hero PAC with Barkan and they set out to change hearts and minds.

In some things they were successful; aided by their efforts, the 2018 elections saw the Democrats retake the House of Representatives. In other things, they were not; despite their efforts, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, despite accusations of sexual misconduct. Barkan worked diligently, trying to advance the agenda of the left while holding the tide back on the politics of the right, but it was taking a toll. The disease was ravaging his body, soon confining Barkan to a wheelchair; he became unable to do basic things like dress himself, bathe himself and feed himself. Eventually, the disease robbed him of his very voice and the film begins and ends with Barkan, addressing Congress by the aid of a computer voice that Barkan operates by using his eyes.

Throughout, we are shown Barkan’s indefatigable sense of humor, his continuing passion, and his unassailable love for his family – wife Racheal (herself a college professor and published author) and infant/toddler son Carl. We also see the toll that the disease coupled with the workload takes on Barkan physically. One cannot help but admire Barkan’s courage.

And if the film gets a little bit hagiographic in that sense, it is understandable Most people given a diagnosis of a fatal disease are not going to use their last years working hard as an activist for a cause; they are going to spend as much time as humanly possible with their families, and do things that are important to them, be it a trip to Disney World or taking a luxury cruise.

Most of what is onscreen is footage from Barkan’s activism coupled with home movies. Amazingly, although his wife Rachael is very much in evidence in the film, we don’t hear from her much, or at least not in meaningful ways. We see the toll taken on Barkan, but we rarely see how the care for a person in Ady Barkan’s position takes its own toll on his loved ones.

For a man for whom family is so demonstrably important, it is a glaring omission. Still, watching Barkan push ahead through his own body’s breakdowns, his occasional despair and the indifference of politicians who mouth platitudes of sympathy out of one side of their mouths and then vote to imperil his life out of the other. Of course, politicians are an easy target to despise, just as people like Barkan who are tilting at windmills with the last of their strength are as easy to admire. Nevertheless, those like Barkan should receive the plaudits they deserve – as the politicians who oppose them the ignominy.

REASONS TO SEE: Barkan is courageous, engaging, and inspiring. Points out the cowardly nature of politics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to get enough commentary from Racheal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a sexual assault is discussed.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers of this documentary are actor/activist Bradley Whitford and the Duplass brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Raging Fire

20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Bonneville


Bonneville

Three chicks on a road trip. Daughters, lock your fathers up!

(2006) Road Trip Drama (SenArt) Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen, Tom Skerritt, Christine Baranski, Tom Amandes, Tom Wopat, Laura Park, Victor Rasuk. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley

Women of a certain age tend to be marginalized by our society, particularly if they are without husbands. That’s especially true of Hollywood, which tends to depict older women as raging sex addicts, uptight old fools or complete loons.

Arvilla Holden (Lange) has just seen her world come crashing down about her. She had married Joe, an adventurous sort who took her globe-hopping in a mad orgy of travel, but while in Borneo he died suddenly, leaving Arvilla to hold together the pieces. To make matters worse, he hadn’t updated his will legally, leaving their Idaho home in the legal possession of his daughter from his first marriage, Francine (Baranski) who really doesn’t like Arvilla.

Joe had specified to Arvilla he wanted his ashes scattered in various places around the United States but shrill Francine wants his ashes buried next to her mother at their Santa Barbara estate. Arvilla is inclined to decline but Francine presents her with an ultimatum; bring the ashes to California or be evicted from her home.

Arvilla, not wanting to be 50-something and homeless, decides to take the ashes to Santa Barbara. She engages her closest friends Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) as moral support. Margene is a free spirit, one with an enviable love of life quotient. Carol is more uptight, a strict Mormon. In fact, all three women belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is how they conceivably met. To the movie’s credit, this isn’t dwelled upon so much as presented as a facet of their personalities.

Originally set to fly to California, Arvilla abruptly decides to take one final road trip with Joe, which Margene heartily endorses and Carol quietly disapproves of. Along the way they visit the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, meet a truck driver (Skerritt) who becomes seriously infatuated with Margene and are rescued from a flat tire on the Bonneville Salt Flats by Bo (Rasuk), a hunky hitch-hiker who gives the ladies a chance at being sweetly ribald.

Most road movies don’t involve grandmotherly sorts, but this one is a little different. Not often do you see women of the Red Hat Society generation portrayed as road warriors, but here you have one. It doesn’t hurt that three of America’s premiere actresses are riding in that 1966 Bonneville. Lange is the centerpiece of the movie, grieving without getting overly emotional although her loneliness is palpable at times. Ditto for Bates, who hides that loneliness with exaggerated bonhomie. Allen, however, might fare the best of all of them as an uptight woman whose life is ruled by strictures that even she feels troubled by at times. She sneaks sips of coffee when she thinks nobody is looking but outwardly at least is the perfect wife and mother of her faith.

The movie can be a little bit too bland in places and other than between Francine and Arvilla, there’s almost zero conflict. We wind up just along for the ride, pleasant as it might be. I would have preferred to examine the Francine-Arvilla dynamic a little more closely; her hatred for Arvilla can only be ascribed to Joe’s temerity of re-marrying after his first wife died, but she seems hell-bent on hurting Joe after his life was over as well; her anger towards her father is never adequately explained, although it may well stem from the same source as her anger towards Arvilla. The shame of it is that Baranski is also a terrific actress and her one real scene with Lange early on in the movie is a showstopper; I would have liked to have seen more of the two together.

The movie got tepid reviews for its somewhat brief limited run, which seems a little bit harsh to me. I thought the movie was solidly entertaining, particularly the performances of Allen, Bates and Lange as well as the supporting turns of Skerritt and Baranski. While the movie never explores the unpleasant side of bereavement (being more about the friendship between the three women), it at least is inoffensive at worst. I’d elevate it slightly higher than that given the talent in front of the camera.

WHY RENT THIS: The three leads are as good as any actresses in Hollywood and watching them together is a hoot. The movie has a sweet charm at its center. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times the movie is a little vanilla, and some of the relationships (particularly Francine and Arvilla’s) aren’t explored adequately.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild cursing and a bit of sexual innuendo. This is generally safe for all but the youngest audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The car used in the film was a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville. The chrome rearview mirror was removed so as not to show the reflection of the crew filming the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo video for the Red Hat Society.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.3M on an unreported budget; while it’s unlikely that the theatrical release made money, chances are it wasn’t far off.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Damned United

It’s Complicated


It's Complicated

It's just a little history repeating...

(Universal) Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth, Hunter Parrish, Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Emjay Anthony, Nora Dunn, Bruce Altman. Directed by Nancy Meyers

Life after divorce can be difficult. So can life after fifty. For a fifty-year-old divorced woman, creating an identity for yourself separate from the one created as a married woman can be an ongoing process.

Jane Adler (Streep) is a successful Santa Barbara bakery owner whose twenty-year marriage to her husband Jake (Baldwin) had ended ten years previously when he cheated on her. Jake wound up marrying Agness (Bell), the younger woman he’d cheated with and inheriting her son Pedro (Anthony), quite possibly the only five-year-old boy Marlo Thomas would punch in the face.

But Jane’s okay, having finally figured out how to live as a divorced woman. She has three adult children – Gabby (Kazan) who is the last to leave the house, Luke (Parrish) who has just graduated from college and Lauren (Fitzgerald) who is engaged to her boyfriend Harley (Krasinski) who has been accepted as “one of the family” already.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jake and Jane wind up in a bar alone together and wind up drinking a lot of wine, do some dancing and end up in the sack. Jane is mortified at first but the attraction between her and Jake is undeniable. For his part, he has never really fallen out of love with his ex-life, especially since the marriage to his hormone-suffused new wife hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would.

Jane is very conflicted about her relationship with her ex, having become the other woman. Further muddying the waters is her architect Adam (Martin), a very nice guy who is helping her with a new addition to her rambling mansion overlooking the Pacific and to whom she has become seriously attracted to. She’s torn between her established relationship, which she isn’t sure is completely over, and the new one, which may hold the promise of something long-term.

Director Nancy Meyers has already explored middle-aged female sexuality in films like Something’s Gotta Give but she gets into the physical sexuality a little more here. Meyers, who also wrote and produced the movie, is becoming one of the more successful women in Tinseltown where female directors are rare.

Here, she has a great cast to work with and they deliver. Streep usually doesn’t play sexual, but she does it magnificently here. She’s a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, which is where her sexiness stems from. She is also not without her self-doubts, however, particularly about the rightness of her actions. Much of the movie revolves around her inner conflict about her relationship with Jake. She is used to be the one sacrificing for her husband and her kids; here she is doing something clearly for her own benefit and its something she’s not used to and not really comfortable with. That makes her pretty much every woman.

Baldwin has shown in “30 Rock” that he is a comic actor to be reckoned with and he continues his fine work here. His Jake is narcissistic, and prone to swaying in whatever direction the breeze is blowing. Like Streep’s Jane, you find yourself not able to really despise Baldwin’s Jake despite his objectionable actions.  

While Steve Martin can play the nice guy in his sleep, he gets to let loose a little bit during a scene at a party where he and Jane get stoned. There, he reminds you that he is one of the best comic actors in the business and has been for 30 years. This is one of his best performances in recent memory.

One note about John Krasinski. Most of you have probably only seen him in “The Office” if at all, but he does exceptionally well here as the future son-in-law who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and possessing of too much information about everything. He is likable and funny; he could well be the next breakout comedy star to emerge from television.

There is much implied nudity here (although no genitalia – female or male – are shown explicitly) and quite frankly, these aren’t the hardbodies that you usually see in intimate scenes. Still, that’s one of the things I liked about the movie – it’s not about hotties copulating but more like real people. While seeing Baldwin’s hairy, pudgy physique (or Streep’s pasty white skin) may not do anything for you, they are more like the people you would actually hook up with were you out there hooking up.

At the heart of the movie there is sweetness, enough that Da Queen took a bigger liking to this movie than I did. It also doesn’t end necessarily the way you’d think it would or even hope it does. Think of this as a romantic comedy that most of us can relate to, even if the circumstances that it depicts are far more complicated a situation than most of us will ever find ourselves in. In any case, those of you not willing to wait in line for Avatar or not inclined to see it at all might consider this an alternative for your holiday moviegoing.

REASONS TO GO: The script is deft and funny. Streep, Baldwin, Martin and Krasinski deliver the goods, acting-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure I needed to see Alec Baldwin nude, even with his vitals covered.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and drug use. You may want to think twice before allowing smaller children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin previously worked with Meyers on the Father of the Bride movies.

HOME OR THEATER: As with most romantic comedies, a big screen is not an absolute necessity.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Akeelah and the Bee