3 Generations (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4

He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Ray/Raymona, Maggie & Dolly are talking with a doctor about Ray’s desire for a sex change treatment program. (c) The Weinstein Co.

Thanks to this film, I’ve just expanded my list of “Susan Sarandon’s Mother Movies” again*—though as you might guess by the title, she’s also a grandmother. (Where have the years gone since 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil?). It too is enjoyable, though because the script is somewhat superficial, will probably not be one listed in a summation of her remarkable career. Her Dolly is a supporting character. The film’s original title was better attuned to its plot: About Ray, the 3rd generation member, daughter Ramona (Elle Fanning) who wants to enter a sex-change program.

Now calling herself Ray, she is eager to begin the series of injections before he/she enters a new high school so that he can begin as a boy and not be stigmatized by having to explain the process for making the change. However, because she/he is a teenager, the 2nd Generation character, Maggie (Naomi Watts) her mother, must give her consent.

Both mother and grandmother are confused by Ramona and express mixed feelings. Dolly herself bucked the system, coming out years ago to declare that she is a lesbian. Ever since she has been in a long-time relationship with Frances (Linda Emond). Single mother Maggie and Ray have lived in the 1st Generation’s large apartment for a long time. Dolly blurts out, “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?” Maggie’s response is simple, showing that she has accepted her birth-daughter’s decision, “She likes women.”

When Maggie at last feels she can sign the legal document she discovers that the signature of Ray’s father Craig (Tate Donavon) is also needed. Her trip to the suburbs to find him leads to the discovery that he has remarried and that he is not eager at all in signing. This of course leads to Ray, and then Dolly and Maggie, traveling to his home—and also a revelation concerning Maggie that is not at all to her credit.

Directed by Gaby Dellal, with Nikole Beckwith as her co-scriptwriter, the film is more amusing than enlightening about transgender people. I do not recall the term “transgender” ever being spoken by any of the characters! Ray travels about the city on his skateboard and is sometimes seen with other teenagers. I recall no hint of his being despised or bullied by “straight” peers, as one might presume. We might also have expected to have sought out the company of other kids regarded as “deviants,” but not so.

The so-so script is well offset by the excellent performances of Elle Fanning, as well as Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. Also, the film is another good reminder of how diverse a form the family can take on today. (Unless we think about it, many of us of the older generations are still bound to the image of the ideal family as being male and female parents with a son and a daughter.) We have come a long way from the nuclear two-parent family of Father Knows Best. Back in the 50s gays were subject in the media to derisive humor and stereotyping. Now it is a lesbian that is depicted as expressing her confusion and frustration over a transgender granddaughter. We are in an age when the old Bible-based guidelines for gender roles are obsolete (and even possibly destructive), too culture-relevant to be of help—although, on the other hand, its two basic commandments are even more relevant than ever.

*See the article “Mothers—As Played by Susan Sarandon in the June 2016 VP.

This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.

Carol (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould…

Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)

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Therese meets Carol while waiting on her in the toy department. (c) Weinstein Co.

The one line summary of the film at IMDB “An aspiring photographer develops an intimate relationship with an older woman” doesn’t even begin to convey the power of this love story. Director Todd Haynes returns to the time of his memorable Far From Heaven, 1952. In that film, as well as in this adaptation (by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy) of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, he ably conveys the straightjacketed moralistic atmosphere of society back then in regard to “deviant” behavior. It is worth noting that Ms. Highsmith wrote her novel under a pseudonym because at that time depicting a love affair between two women was so shocking that using her real name would hurt her career, critics and public alike probably branding her work as salacious or pornographic..

Therese (Rooney Mara) is a lowly sales girl in an upscale Manhattan department store when she sees the fur-clad Carol (Cate Blanchett) gazing at her across the counters of the toy department where she works. Christmas is nearing, so Carol uses the season as a pretext for approaching the clerk about buying a popular doll for her young daughter. When Therese responds that it is sold out, but there are other good ones, Carol asks what she would have liked when she was a little girl. The clerk replies that it would be the toy train set on display—not at that time considered gift appropriate for a girl. Carol agrees to buy it. Apparently this has confirmed her attraction to Therese, because she “forgets” her pair of expensive gloves. As their owner probably had surmised, Therese scoops them up and later, obtaining the address from the bill of sale, mails them to her. Thus begins a relationship that turns into a love affair, one that had it started today might have been regarded as a mundane affair, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, at least in such large urban settings as Manhattan.

Representing the repressive society that the 1950s America was for some (this is also the the blacklisting period of Trumbo) are two men. Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) has asked her to marry him, but she has said No. Harge (Kyle Chandler) is Carol’s husband and father of the little daughter she adores, but she is not drawn to him. She has intended to divorce him for a long time. Richard continues to hang out with Therese, and Harge is jealous of Carol’s one time lover Abbey (Sarah Paulson) who is now Carol’s best friend.

The tenor of the era is well depicted in the scene with would-be-husband Jack and Therese talk about romantic feelings—or rather her lack of feeling for him. She explains that persons have no control over whom they love, that it could be two men falling in love. To her query if he has ever had feelings for a boy, he quickly scoffs at the idea of such a notion. When he asks if she has felt that way about a girl, she also denies it. Much later we also see the order of things when Carol encourages Therese to pursue her hobby of photography, even buying her for Christmas an expensive camera. When the former gets a job at the New York TIMES through a friend, we see that she works as a secretary, not as a photojournalist—all of the latter are men.

Matters become so bad at home that Carol talks Therese into quitting her job at the department store and going with her on an escapist trip through the Mid-West. During this interlude the two consummate their love in a motel, but the trip screeches to an unexpected halt, thanks to Harge and his hired detective. We soon see that Carol has broken off from Therese and agreed to stay married because of a “moral clause” in the marriage laws that would allow Harge to gain full custody of their daughter and prevent all contact should they divorce. But love will have its way. What the two women eventually decide to do suggests that their future in such a society will be extremely difficult and require a great deal of fortitude. The course of true love is seldom an easy one, especially when society, fueled by a particular interpretation of the Bible, raises obstacles.

Director Haynes has explored this era and its attitude toward deviants before in his 2002 Far From Heaven, as mentioned at the beginning. It is almost a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. The deviation in the 1955 film was one of class and age difference, a widow falling in love with a gardener who is younger than she, and thus having to go up against the disapproval of grown children and friends. In the 2002 film the heroine is married to a man who has tried to disavow that he is gay, but at last gives in and moves out to live with a man. The wife slowly falls in love with her gardener who is African American.

Haynes demonstrates in this new film, as well as his earlier one, that he is a keen observer of human nature and of people pushing against boundaries that enslave them. In this new film he is beautifully served by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara whose total commitment to the project makes us believe in their love.

The movie took me back to the early 50s when I was still in high school and working with other youth at a grocery store unloading trucks and stocking shelves. All the guys, anxious to prove their manhood, tried to outdo one another in oggling and making smart comments about female customers dressed in shorts and brag how many girls they had “laid”. The worst insult one could hurl during an argument was to call someone a “fag” or “queer.” I shared that viewpoint, even though a friendly clerk at a music store whom I came to know was “different. He served as my mentor during the process of expanding my love for film music into the larger world of classical music and opera. The clerk became my friend, inviting me into his home where I met what I naively thought was his roommate. We spent many enjoyable hours listening to and discussing music and related issues. Never did either make any sexual overture to me, as those enveloped in homophobia claim always happens. By the time I was entering college I knew that they were homosexuals, but was able to keep this knowledge separated from the section of my mind that condemned homosexuality as indecent and sinful. It would take many years, even after seminary graduation and ordination, before I could shed the embedded homophobia and discern how badly mistaken we are to use the Bible as the basis for anti-gay views. Part of my eventual emancipation was due to movies that showed the humanity of those who were “different,” movies such as Midnight Cowboy, Cabaret, Priest, Philadelphia, Far From Heaven, Brokeback Mountain, and now this one. Today it is hard for me to believe that some will hear about this movie and condemn it as immoral. The love between Carol and Therese is a universal one. Some day perhaps we will be able to label such films as just love stories without having to resort to any kind of an explanation or label.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Jan. 2016 Visual Parables.

Freeheld (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6

Love is patient; love is kind…It bears all things,

believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7

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Laurel & Stacie are unconventional lovers in this gay rights film.             (c) Lions Gate

Director Peter Sollet’s film starts out like a police thriller, changes soon into a romance, albeit a lesbian one, then a medical tale of fighting against cancer, and winds up as a social justice struggle to obtain equal rights. I went into this film not knowing any of the above—just that it starred Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, which was enough for me to want to see it.

Although critical reaction has been very mixed, I was deeply moved by the plight of the two women protagonists, and, when Steve Carell entered the picture as an aggressive gay rights activist, delighted by the light touch he brought to the serious struggle. Writer Ron Nyswaner’s script is apparently an expansion of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 film, which won an Academy Award for a documentary on a short subject. Ms. Moore plays veteran police detective Laurel Hester of New Jersey’s Ocean County. Highly decorated, she is in line for a lieutenancy. Her partner  Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) would like to become more than her trusted colleague, but he is unaware of her long held secret concerning her gender preference. When she meets the younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), the two are smitten, even though they get off to a rocky start. Stacie is unaware that Laurel is a cop until during a date the latter wards off some would be robbers with the gun she always carries with her.

After registering their relationship the two buy a house at a discrete distance from police headquarters, the deed in Laurel’s name because she is the one with the funds. Stacie manages to secure a mechanics job after showing the owner in a tire changing contest that she is faster, despite her small size, than another mechanic. Shortly after they have settled into their home Dane shows up with a large plant as a house gift, receiving the shock of his life when he learns that his long-time partner is a lesbian. (However, he says later that he is more upset by her not trusting him enough to reveal her secret than he is about her gender preference.)

The social justice issue arises when Laurel learns that she has cancer, and that it will be terminal. Stacie tries to deny the inevitable, but Laurel, knowing better, petitions the Ocean County Freeholders Board to transfer her pension benefits to Stacie upon her death. For various reasons the Board members in a private meeting turn her request down, even though a state law does allow them to do so. Without these benefits Stacie will be sure to lose their house.

With great trepidation from Stacie, Laurel decides to make her request public at the next meeting of the Board of Freeholders. They again turn her down, but the issue will not go away because a reporter writes a story about Laurel and her plea. Enter Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), both a rabbi and a gay rights activist who knows how to stir things up with his hand-held bull horn. And he is not alone, bringing a bus load of other activists who chant with him to the Board, “You have the power! You have the power!” Life becomes very hard for the members of the Board, who try to remain adamant in their refusal to grant Laurel’s request, one that would be routine if Stacie were a man.

Dane supports Laurel, though he is as dubious as Stacie is about the bold and brassy Goldstein. In one exchange he responds to Goldstein’s declaration, “This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Their next meeting we show up with 100 protesters,” with, “Radicals and strangers from New York aren’t going to convince these guys.” Goldstein answers, “I am not a radical. I am a middle-class, Jewish homosexual from New Jersey. How about you, sweetheart?” “I’m a straight, white, ex-Protestant, atheist cop. You okay with that, ‘sweetheart?’” The activist declares, “I am. That is very hot.”

The many scenes in which the Board members discuss Laurel’s request are very interesting. One of them for religious reasons rejects her case out of hand. Another wrestles with his conscience because he recognizes the justice of her case. Others are opposed at first just because society rejects the gay lifestyle. All are concerned about an upcoming election, and so remain determined to resist the claim lest they lose votes. If only that loud, brash guy with his megaphone would stop stirring up the crowds!

The story’s going national puts even more pressure on the Freeholders. Thus we see the importance in our modern society of agitators and media publicity in bringing about change. This is something that the Hebrew prophets would have readily understood, Isaiah shouting his condemnations of injustice of king and people as he strode naked through the streets of Jerusalem, knowing that he could not be ignored by using such a shocking act. And Jeremiah standing in the crowded doorway of the temple to denounce the unfaithfulness of the nation also knew how to get his message out to the people.

Also worthy of note are the scenes set at the police station where Dane risks his career by attempting to get his fellow cops to come out and publicly support the colleague they had once liked and admired. He tries to shame them by pointing out that hundreds of other locals have come to the hearings in support of Laurel, but none of them have. Their instilled-from-birth homophobia proves to be a major barrier, and also one of them harbors his own secret. How they come around, for the most part, might seem a bit too Capraesque for some, but it is still inspiring. (If only the soundtrack music had been subtler instead of telling us what to feel during some of the scenes!)

Given the prominence of gender equality in political debates and the news, this movie is very timely. People of faith will differ concerning the film’s acceptance of the gay lifestyle, but they should be able to ralley around the issue of the injustice that would leave Stacie homeless. There are far more Scriptures in support of the outsider and the despised than those few misunderstood Scripture passages opposed to homosexuality. If you appreciated Philadelphia, you should enjoy this flawed but still inspiring dramatized documentary celebrating two brave women and two brave men.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.

Stonewall (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 9 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 7; Sex 8/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.

Proverbs 14:31

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Tired of their unjust treatment, the Greenwich Village LGBT community rises up against the police.                  (c) 2015 Roadside Attractions

Director Roland Emmerich’s film about the rise of the LGBT Movement has ignited a storm of controversy, but is still worth watching, at least for those who think of Stonewall only as a stalwart Confederate General shot by one of his own men. The criticisms are justified in that any one of the supporting characters would have been a better focus for the film than the fictional white bread youth from a small town in Indiana arriving in Greenwich Village. With his well scrubbed looks actor Jeremy Irvine’s Danny Winters would have been an ideal actor for one of those Midwest Boy (or Girl) Makes Good in New York films of the Thirties and Forties, but here his main function seems to be that of our avatar for entering and understanding the strange world of social rejects that populated Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street in the Sixties.

Danny’s back-story, shown in various flashbacks, is that of a high school football player in love with the team’s quarterback Joe (Karl Glusman). One night classmates spy them making out in a car, and the next morning the whole school knows, Danny finding “Faggot” scrawled on his locker door. His lover gets off by telling the coach it was a one-time incident initiated by Danny. The coach is Danny’s strict, moralistic father (David Cubitt) who, when the boy resists demands for counseling, has his sorrowful but compliant wife pack Danny’s bags. Only his liberal minded younger sister Phoebe (Joey King) objects to his leaving home.

He had intended to go that fall to NYC where he had been accepted as a scholarship student at Columbia University. However, having no money for lodging, Danny finds himself drawn to Christopher Street where he is taken aback by the motley crew of transgender hustlers and vagabonds. The naïve Hoosier is not used to seeing boys in girls’ clothes and men flirting openly with men. Chief among them is a queen dressed in homemade clothes for whom the word “flamboyant” is an understatement, the Puerto Rican Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp). Hanging out with her are characters with such names as Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis), Little Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones), Lee (Alex C. Nachi) and Quiet Paul (Ben Sullivan), most of whom are barely surviving by turning tricks for the numerous outsiders who venture into the neighborhood. Later he also encounters Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit), a real-life African-American drag queen who later became an activist leader.

Danny resists Ray’s flirtatious welcome, but does accept dog walker Bob Kohler’s (Patrick Garrow) offer to store his suitcase in his apartment until the youth can find lodgings of his own. It is fortunate that it is summer, Danny spending his first few nights sleeping in alleys and doorways. As he becomes more acquainted with Ray/Ramon and “the girls,” he accepts her invitation to bed down with them in the dingy rooms of West Village flophouses where ten or more of them sleep scrammed together on the floor. It is Ray/Ramona, harboring romantic feelings for him, who introduces Danny to the Stone Wall Inn, a dive run by the burly Mafia-connected Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman). Here, amidst its tawdry trappings drag queens, transgender men and women, gay prostitutes, and runaways feel somewhat safe, dancing, talking, and connecting with one another. I write “somewhat safe” because ever so often the police, led by vice squad deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven), make routine raids so as to appear to the public that they are complying with such anti-gay laws as the one that prohit gays from gathering together in groups. As long as the patrons can show an ID and do not protest the cops let them go free. Actually the police are paid off to ignore the many illegal activities in which Murphy is involved. (We learn later that one of these activities is pimping handsome youth for a wealthy man, Danny becoming one such victim.)

The historic uprising of the patrons on the night of June 28, 1969 when the club-wielding cops barge into the Inn is well staged, though unfortunately it is the fictional Danny who is shown as casting the first brick into the Stonewall’s window, not one of the real life characters. The crowd becomes so vociferous that for a time it appears that Murphy, Det. Seymour Pine, and his fellow cops will either be lynched if they venture outside beyond the barricaded doors or burned to death when the building is set afire. The riot control squads do finally arrive, starting a confrontation between the missile-hurling youth and shield-wielding line of police. Probably every one of the crowd has been beat-up one or more times by the cops (there is a scene in which Danny, trapped in the Meat District, then the site of nightly sex couplings, is ruthlessly bludgeoned by a cop who enjoys his work), so the rebellious crowd refuses to disperse. (The riots went on for several nights, and not just the film’s single one.)

Historically, as well as artistically, the film is flawed—the criticisms are right on in decrying the choice of making clean cut Danny the main character. The real life Trevor (Rhys Meyers), with whom Danny enters into a brief romantic relationship, might have been a better choice, he being a member of the Mattachine Society, a male gay rights organization that was pushing for gay rights. In this respect, the film does show well that there were two very different groups of LGBT people back then, Trevor’s insightful activists pushing back against their oppressors, and Ray/Ramona’s apolitical circle, disdainful of the activists dressed in their socially acceptable suits and ties.

When the theater lights came up I thought of how some of the films of the Sixties strove to support equal rights acceptable to audiences, most notably Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In this film that dared to center on inter-racial marriage the white Joey Drayton’s betrothed John Prentice is played by Sidney Poitier. Her parents, played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, are stand-ins for those whom the filmmakers knew would make up the audience, Northern white liberals. Prentice is not just an average guy, but also a highly educated doctor who works for or with The World Health Organization. Many liberals back then, both white and black, were all for equal rights but dubious about intermarriage, hence the presentation of a man so well qualified educational, socially, and morally that the only objections could be that of the difficulty the couple would have fitting into society.

In the case of Stonewall, Danny’s story works as a coming out or transformational story, the boy changing during the course of the film from hapless victim to that of angry activist no longer tolerating society’s oppression. There is even a touch of realism when he returns home and achieves but a partial familial reconciliation. However, his story should have been told in a separate film. Nonetheless, I think this one will serve well to inform us in the straight community helpful insights into the history of a group once despised and rejected. We really have come a long way, though there are still “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Good scene for peace activists: During the riot the protestors form a chorus line, singing while kicking their heels high as they approach the police line. The police are dumbfounded. Protected by their large windowed shields, they know how to ward off the rocks and bricks hurled at them, but this unexpected reaction is a surprise. The cops look at one another in bewilderment. It is a Gandhian confrontation, but unfortunately gives way when the protestors again resort to their violence. One wonders what might have been the outcome had they stuck with their fleeting nonviolent approach.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of VP.

Grandma (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 29 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

Matthew 15:25

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This shot symbolizes well Grandma’s position in regard to her daughter and granddaughter.     (c) 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

Sage (Julia Garner) needs help but, unlike the Syro-Phonician woman, she would not think of going to a religious leader, even if he were named Jesus. Her problem is quite different, too—it is not her child she is concerned about, but a potential one that she wants to abort. She goes to her grandmother Elle (Lili Tomlin), asking her for $630 dollars, the cost of an abortion. And she needs it now, because the desperate girl has made a 5:45 PM appointment at the women’s health center that day. Neither Elle nor Sage are on good terms with daughter/mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), hence the girl’s appeal to Grandma—indeed, Sage has not even told her mom about her condition.

Appearing so suddenly out of the blue, the girl has not chosen the best time to make her pitch. Elle has not had a good day, the lesbian woman having just broken up with her partner of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer). Informing Sage that she is temporarily broke, she suggests that they go to the public clinic where the service is free. However, it has been over ten years since she had been to the place, and they discover that it has closed and been replaced by an upscale coffee shop. Grandma not only loudly disses the coffee, but discusses Sage’s problem so openly that the manager asks them to leave, resulting in the funny situation revealed in the trailer.

Sage’s uncaring boyfriend claims to have no money, responding so insultingly them that Elle beats him up, the two leaving with the $50 he did have plus a bag of weed. Various other attempts fail, including an appeal to an old flame from over thirty years ago (wonderfully played by Sam Shepard) when she participated in heterosexual affairs. This leads the women to their mutually arrived at conclusion that they have but one choice left. Looking like residents of a homeless shelter, they show up at mother Judy’s swank office where she, a senior executive, is awash in meetings and calls.

Director-screenwriter Paul Weitz provides a highly enjoyable vehicle for Lili Tomlin to show both her acting chops and comedic skills. A published poet, Tomlin’s Elle is a brash, tart tongued hellion who will do virtually anything to support her grand-daughter. Still grieving over the death of her partner of almost three decades, her temper and sharp tongue has led to the premature break-up with Olivia. (And yet note what she has tattooed on her arm in one scene.) Thus, although some viewers will see only abortion as the main issue, the real theme of the film is reconciliation. (Abortion is not dealt with lightly, and though I had for a while wished that Sage would reach a different decision, the film is clearly a pro-choice one.)

For a proud woman like Elle, reconciliation, which always requires owning up to guilt by both parties, does not come easily. Also, in the case with her daughter Judy, Elle arrives at a measure of self-understanding by recognizing how similar in character they both are. The film can also be seen as another good character study of an older person, with the moral that as long as there is life, there is the hope and possibility for change for the better. The last long, lingering shot shows Elle walking away from the camera down a street lined by lamposts. She has been abandoned by the taxi driver whom she had asked to wait for her, but she has just made up for her earlier mistake at the beginning of the film, so we can assume that she is walking toward a better future.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of VP.