Love is Strange

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Love is strange.  As this movie opens, a deeply devoted couple of more than three decades wakes up and prepares for a big, important, emotional, happy occasion.  They bicker a little bit, but it is clear to them and to us that these are reassuringly familiar rhythms for them, almost a contrapuntal love duet in words.  Later in the film, two people who admire and care for each other deeply but are getting on one another’s nerves, converse in terms that are genuinely thoughtful and polite, and yet it is clear to us and to them that they are seconds short of wanting to throttle each other.  One of them will tell his husband in a phone call, “When you live with people, you know them better than you want to.”  That is, unless you share a true, romantic love.  That’s what’s strange — how it is that other people’s quirks that would annoy us if we spent too much time together somehow seem endearing when it is someone you love.  Love is what makes us not strange to the special people who truly understand us.

Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, a comfortable but far from wealthy couple who have lived happily together in New York, in a life rich with art, culture, friends, and family.  Ben is an artist.  George is a choir leader in a Catholic school.  As the film opens, it is their wedding day.  Gathered in their apartment afterward, they are toasted by their loved ones, including Ben’s niece-in-law, Kate (Marisa Tomei), a writer, who makes a beautiful speech about how seeing them together, when she was dating their nephew, showed her what a loving partnership could be.

But their marriage is too much for the bishop who oversees George’s school, and he is fired.  Ben and George go into financial free-fall.  They can no longer afford their apartment, and they call on their friends and family to help them while they try to find something less expensive. Everyone wants to help, but this is New York, where space is very limited, and no one can take them both. (A niece who lives in a large house in Poughkeepsie keeps offering, but no one considers that an option.) Ben goes to stay with his nephew, a harried documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Kate, and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). He will be sleeping in Joe’s bunk bed. George will be sleeping on the sofa in the small apartment of friends, another gay couple, both cops, who have an active social life.

What “Brokeback Mountain” did to convey that movie romances between gorgeous, glamorous movie stars do not all have to be heterosexual, this film does even better for showing us that the real love story is the one that stretches over decades. Lithgow and Molina exquisitely capture the intimacy and interdependence that only those in very long-term relationships understand. They lightly touch on past disappointments, even betrayals. They tenderly support one another’s vulnerabilities.

The brilliant timing and wit of the scene where Kate is trying to get work done while Ben is cluelessly trying to be a good guest by making social chit-chat is a highlight. Tomei is outstanding, as always. Tahan is marvelously open as a good kid who understandably feels crowded to have a 70-something uncle in his bunk bed. Writer-director Ira Sachs has enough respect for his characters and his audience to allow everyone to be nice. There are no bad guys here (except for the off-screen bishop). But that just makes clear how precious those moments are when we experience the love of those to whom we are never strangers.

Parents should know that this movie is rated R for language only.  There is a sad death.

Family discussion:  What would you advise Ben and George to do?  This movie shows small moments many movies overlook and skips the big moments many movies would include – – why?

If you like this, try: writer/director Ira Sachs’ other films, including “Married Life,” and the classic 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow.

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Family Issues

Interview: Ira Sachs of “Love is Strange”

Posted on August 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

LOVE-IS-STRANGEIt’s hard to imagine that there will be a more tender love story on screen this year than John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in “Love is Strange,” from writer/director Ira Sachs.  They play a long-time couple who get married after decades together but then end up living separately when they can no longer afford their apartment.

One of my all-time favorite interviews was with Sachs for his film, “Married Life,” so I was doubly thrilled to have a chance to talk to him about this bittersweet new film.

I love opening scene, as the couple wakes up and engages in the kind of shorthand bicker/banter characteristic of a very long-term relationship.  How did you capture that?

I would say that the film was inspired by a lot of different couples, including my mother and stepfather who have been together for 43 years. And just being around her, that fundamentally works and that they still love each other and they’re wonderful partners to each other. But it’s real, so it’s imperfect and it has all the momentary challenges of living an intimate life with someone.  That is a big inspiration for me. And also John and Alfred and their own years of marriage. I think that’s where they found their deepest resonance in terms of the characters in their own lives.

 One thing that I like about the story is that everybody’s nice.  There are conflicts, but there’s no bad guy in the movie.

Robert Altman is a very big inspiration for me and also novelists like Henry James, .people who actually try to look with empathy to everyone in their world.   I am what you could call a very democratic director. And to me that’s kind of my job which is to be understanding of people and to be attentive to their foibles and their uniqueness.  The more that I position myself like that as a director of the more depth the work can have.

John Lithgow plays an artist, a painter, whose work is representational, rather traditional.

My great uncle in Memphis when I was growing up, he had a partner, and they were together for 45 years. His partner was a sculptor who lived to be 99. I was very close to him in the last ten years of his life.  I had to grow up to be old enough to be allowed to be that close to someone of that generation. And he was a man who was working on his last sculpture when he was 98 and it was of a young teenage boy with a backpack.  His whole life he always did classical, religious narrative pieces. And suddenly at 98 he was working on something very contemporary about youth.  That piece remains unfinished.  It’s in clay in a glass at a cousin’s house. I was very inspired by that piece. And the sense of man who or of anyone who is living their life to the fullest for as long as possible and with an openness to new things. And I was actually thinking about this said the other day as I was doing a Q&A with John Lithgow who this summer is doing “King Lear.”  He’s a passionate reader, he writes children’s books, he paints, I’ve grown to be very inspired by John which is not something I knew when wrote Ben, but it’s what I hoped for and I think we have to create our models sometime.  He’s very funny and he’s got humility and confidence and I think those are both very important quality to be an artiste.

Talk to me about Joey, the teenage son of Ben’s teenage relatives.  It was such an interesting choice to end the film on him.

To me it’s film very much about the seasons of life and generations and the circular nature of our time on earth.  This film is centered on an older couple but you could also call it a coming of age film.  And it’s a film about family, however that is defined. To me it is defined both personally and romantically but also communally. And I think that’s something that I hold on to.  I wouldn’t be a filmmaker without my communal family. I wouldn’t think of my last two films without finding a new way that is disconnected from the Hollywood system.   As an artist I returned to my independent models like John Cassavetes, the guy who was never given the right to make the films he made but grabbed them when he could.  In order for my career to be sustained I had to go back in my mind to when I was young.  A lot of what happens for filmmakers particularly is they expect the system to work for them and in terms of these kind of films, that’s not how it happens.

How did the financing come together for this?

Twenty five individuals who responded to the script.  You know my last film Keep the Lights On was financed by 400 individuals so at this point I’m talking about a little bit of a different model because it’s 25 instead of 400. But it’s still a group of individuals who understood the power of the story. Since we’ve made the film three of the women who were key investors of have gotten married to their long-term partners.  All of them were successful business owners, which is why they were able to invest in my film and I think they understood the inherently human quantity of the story.

One of the great powers of the movie that it’s just a relationship that everybody can relate to.  Other than one thoughtless but not bigoted comment from a teenager, the fact that the couple is gay is not significant. 

For me as a gay person I cannot be defined as that alone.  As an artist, I’m trying to understand character in all its complexity so you can’t put one adjective in front of the other. So that is why I hope that I represent people who are fully human.  What we’re trying to do, and this is why a film like “Manhattan” and “Hannah and her Sisters” and particularly, “Husbands and Wives” most of all were very inspiring to us because I think what you try to do is get the details right. We’re not all the same but Shakespeare is still relevant for a reason.  Humanly we’re all driven often by the same needs.

One of the stand-out scenes in the film is when Lithgow and Marisa Tomei are in the same room while she is trying to work and also to be polite when he wants to chat.  You feel her irritation and yet you see both sides.  It is heartbreaking but also very funny!

I have the benefit of working with actors I was initially interested in because of their dramatic chops but what I also had were actors train in comedy.  I really noticed it when we were working on that scene.  Their timing was just so excellent, and it’s kind of brilliant. And those abilities are what give the film its lightness because it talks about things that are very serious and they are dramatic but I think there’s lightness to that these actors bring and then I hope that I bring.   I’m lighter than I was the last time I saw you. I mean “Married Life” was a darker film.  And it’s a film about what is hidden. And that was something that was very compelling to me until I was forty.

That is a dark film.  It’s about adultery and a husband who plans to commit murder.  But it ends in a remarkably sunny way.

We’re all generally struggling lovely people.  If you get down to it there’s something touching about each of us.  I don’t believe in evil, I believe in the creation of evil.

There’s a very tender scene in “Love is Strange” where we get a glimpse of how sweetly this couple support each other. 

They loved each other and they believed in each other.  There was a Hal Hartley film made in the 90s called “Trust.”  I haven’t seen it since then but I remember one of the characters said that love equals respect plus admiration plus trust. And I’ve actually often thought about those three terms as how they intertwine and how they’re also distinct. The respect is different than admiration and trust is yet another thing. And I’m in a marriage that has those things.  But marriage is a legal vessel that this film speaks to  but it’s actually not the subject of this film. The subject is intimacy.

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Directors Interview Writers

This is 40

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Writer-director Judd Apatow has made the mistake of believing that the audience will find his wife and children and mid-life crisis as relatable and endearing as he does. And there is nothing more fatal to a movie than a gross miscalculation about the appeal of its characters. It’s fine to make a movie about unpleasant people as long as the movie knows they are unpleasant. But this movie asks us to care about the concerns of people who care very little for anything but the most superficial and selfish problems, with no sense at all of how shallow and unappealing they are.

Apatow’s mega-successful “Knocked Up” was the story of a successful professional woman who became pregnant after a one-night stand with a man who was neither successful nor professional.  The pregnant woman’s sister Debbie (Apatow’s real-life spouse Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) provided a comedic counterpoint, coping with marital stress, including two children, played by Apatow and Mann’s real-life children.  In one scene, Debbie and her sister are not permitted into a club because Debbie is too old and her sister is pregnant.  Debbie is devastated by the loss of this important validation.  Debbie is shrill and demanding, constantly blaming her husband.  In one big plot twist, it turns out that the secret he had been hiding from her was not an affair but a fantasy sports group he liked to escape to.

“This is 40” continues the story of Pete and Debbie.  She is still shrill and demanding, still constantly blaming her husband, and still pretty much on board with the idea that her self-worth depends on being attractive to strangers in hot clubs.  In the opening scene, the week of both Pete’s and Debbie’s 40th birthdays, they are having very enthusiastic sex in the shower when he reveals that his performance has been enhanced with medication.  Instead of expressing concern or sympathy or support, she interprets this as evidence that she is no longer as attractive as she was when she was younger.  She whines to her personal trainer (Apatow regular Jason Segal) that she is failing to arouse men and he consoles her by saying that she arouses him.

Debbie insists that she and Pete embark on a course of self-improvement that involves graphic depictions of a mammogram and a colonoscopy, and a lot of resolutions about eating better and unplugging the kids from the internet.  It does not, however, involve any expressions of generosity, humility, compassion, responsibility, or maturity.  Pete and Debbie are aggrieved by the remoteness (her) and dependence (his) of their fathers, but they are not doing much better as parents.  I have a sinking feeling that there will a a future sequel for the girls to work out their issues with their parents.

The movie is overlong and saggy, swooping almost randomly from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, and yet it is all supposed to take place in about one week.  This continually undercuts any sense of forward momentum and Apatow stuffs his films with so many of his friends that we keep having to be reminded of who all the characters are.  And then when we are reminded, we are disappointed all over again.  Segal, Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Charlene Yi and Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) are all trotted out for short bits and some are quite funny (be sure to stay for McCarthy’s outtakes during the credits).  And Megan Fox is a standout as an impossibly hot and possibly larcenous employee in Debbie’s boutique.  This is Fox’s second top-notch performance this year, following “Friends With Kids” — take that, Michael Bay.  There is even an occasional flash of understanding of the challenges of marriage and getting older, as when Pete and Debbie try (but not very hard) to use obviously therapy-inspired tactics for expressing their complaints and disappointments.

But that is not enough to make up for the  inert plotline and unappealing characters.  For a guy who seems to think about nothing more than the travails of self-absorbed people suffering from arrested development, Apatow has failed to learn that the issue is not growing old — it is growing up.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely graphic and explicit sexual references and situations including fertility issues and an “escort,” constant very strong language, drinking, marijuana, some mild violence (no one badly hurt), family stress, and stealing.

Family discussion:  What do we learn about Pete and Debbie from their relationships with their fathers?  Why was staying young so important to Debbie?
If you like this, try: “Knocked Up” (featuring the same characters) and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”
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Comedy Drama Family Issues Series/Sequel
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The Original: ‘Footloose’ (1984)

Posted on October 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm

The original Footloose was one of the decade-defining movies of the 1980’s, with a sensational soundtrack that included the title song by Kenny Loggins, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” (Deniece Williams), “Dancing in the Sheets” (Shalimar), and “Holding Out for a Hero” (Bonnie Tyler).

In this week’s remake, Blake Shelton covers the Kenny Loggins title tune, and Jana Kramer sings “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.”  The song I am most looking forward to hearing is new, though: Big & Rich sing “Fake ID” with Gretchen Wilson!

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