FREEHELD (2015)

October 2, 2015

freeheld Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.

We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.

A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest.  However, this isn’t a story for laughs.  Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.

watch the trailer:

 


DIFF 2015 – Day 2

April 12, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 2 – Saturday April 11

Below is my recap of the three films I caught on Day 2 of this year’s festival:

 

THE AMINA PROFILE (2015, doc)

DIFF 2015

Social Media has changed so much about society: how information is dispersed, how we present ourselves, how we argue points of view, and even how relationships are structured. This documentary from Sophie Deraspe explores each of these points by dissecting a real world chain of events.

With events taking place during Syria’s Arab Spring of 2011, Amina Arraf started a blog entitled “A Gay Girl in Demascus”, where she wrote about both the dangers of being a lesbian in Syria, and the larger societal issues being faced by the populace living in the shadows of a dominating government regime. Her brave words garnered many followers, while also instigating an online romance with Sandra from Canada.

A few months later, Amina’s blog entries suddenly halt and the concern from Sandra and other readers spreads to international media outlets. Ms. Deraspe offers an interesting blend of styles in her approach. On one hand, some of the first images we see come across as a deep artsy film; and then next thing we are getting is talking head interviews with reporters and other concerned followers mixed with actual TV newscasts from the period.

In order to avoid any spoilers, suffice to say that the story comes in two distinct parts. The second half provides some fascinating psychological studies in regards to trust and narcissism, while also forcing us to further question the complacency of news outlets in this new age of readily available information. As the proverbial onion layers are peeled back, we can’t help but wonder who can be trusted and what steps are sufficient for verification.

Probably the biggest takeaway stems from the realization of just how easily we are manipulated and distracted by media outlets who determine what is “news” (what brings ratings) and what can be overlooked … the often more serious topics such as the Syrians who are still “dying in the dark”. This excellent documentary will provide no shortage of material for discussion and soul-searching.

 

THUNDER BROKE THE HEAVENS (2015)

DIFF 2015

thunder Very few things in life bother me more than seeing kids mistreated. It seems so simple: if we want productive caring adults, it’s our responsibility to raise, train, and treat kids accordingly.

In writer/director Tim Skousen’s film, 13 year old Sam (Alexandra Peters) and her 6 year old brother William Paul (Gavin Howe) manage to escape an unthinkable and violent family tragedy that leaves them without parents. This of course leads to foster parents, and though we have seen worse, it’s clear that Sam and William Paul are viewed as little more than a paycheck in their new home. The two kids are never allowed to work through their devastating loss, and instead cling to each other for security.

In fear of being split from her brother and suffering another unbearable loss, Sam takes charge and leads her brother into the woods where she believes she can take care of him and protect him. As smart as she is, 13 year olds have limited survival skills and soon enough the siblings are in need of food and medicine. They cross paths with an understanding bar owner played by Tom Nowicki, and his kindness can be questioned by viewers – is he doing the right thing?

The spirit of the story is alive in each scene thanks to a remarkable performance from Alexandra Peters as Sam. She is stunning in the strength and vulnerability she displays, while also maintaining a childlike curiosity that perfectly captures the notion that every child “deserves a life”. Mr. Skousen has a keen eye for camera work, and it’s especially effective during the Thanksgiving Day in-home tragedy.  And with his heavenly approach to good (and never ending) parenting, it’s a reminder for us to constantly ask if we as parents are making things better or worse for kids.

 

SHE’S THE BEST THING IN IT (2015, doc)

DIFF 2015

shes the best thing If you follow the live theatre, you are likely familiar with Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson. Everyone else will likely recognize her face (not her name) from various TV and movie appearances – ranging from “One Day at a Time” to Nebraska (2013). Ms. Wilson is one of the very few who have enjoyed a fifty plus year career as a character actor. Her own differentiation between a star and an actor: Stars are themselves playing others, while character actors disappear into the role. For her, this is heart of acting.

Director Ron Nyswaner is a well known writer (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), and this is his first documentary. It would be incorrect to label this as a biopic. Though Ms. Wilson is the main focus of the project, it seems more accurate to call this a portrait of acting … especially female actors. How and why do actors do what they do? What makes them keep going? Mr. Nyswaner admitted during the Q&A that he “loves” and appreciates actors … not something we always hear from writers.

The cameras follow Ms. Wilson to her first teaching gig in New Orleans (where she was raised). Watching this energetic and passionate octogenarian work so hard to connect with a class of twenty year olds is intriguing, and as frustrating at times for the viewer as it is for her pupils. They struggle to comprehend her directions and critiques, as do we. She brings her 50 years experience and the knowledge of her legendary acting mentor Sanford Meisner to a group who mostly seem more in love with the idea of stardom, rather than a desire to develop a craft.

The real insight here comes courtesy of interviews with such actresses as Tyne Daly, Frances McDormand, Valerie Harper, Estelle Parson, and Melissa Leo. These extremely successful people come clean on the hard work, dedication, insecurities and the pain (“That’s the point” according to Ms. McDormand). Though they touch on the topic, I was anxious for more discussion on the challenges women face in the industry. One thing was clear for each … they LOVE acting.

Another enjoyable piece revolves around the reuniting of Ms. Wilson with her sister, a local playhouse actress herself. The two ladies reminisce about their childhood, and what motivated them to escape into “play pretend”. They both agree that being peculiar and feeling inadequate provided the natural desire to escape into roles.

This is one of the best looks at acting that you will find. The struggles, the motivation, the ups and downs, are all captured here in a perfectly titled film.