Tag: ira sachs

Love is Strange

Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.

“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.

Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.

The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.

The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.

Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”

Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.

“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.

Little Men

Little Men (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Ira Sachs’ masterful slice-of-life picture “Little Men,” it is seemingly meandering, directionless, not at all interested in plot and the usual contrivances that come with it. It’s so refreshing to come across a film that has the potential to become anything—just like its thirteen-year-old protagonists who forge a friendship after they meet during a funeral. From the ashes sprouts a sign of life and we wonder for the entire duration of the material whether this life shared by two can endure the roughest storms.

Credit to the casting director Avy Kaufman for choosing young, tyro performers to play Jake and Tony, the budding artist and the aspiring thespian, respectively. These characters are winningly played by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, the former’s character an introvert and the latter portraying quite the polar opposite. There is a natural feeling about them that is contemporary, magnetic, and relatable but without the sugary cuteness that plague numerous films—mostly mainstream works—that fall under the same sub-genre. Credit goes to the director and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, for not writing the young adolescents as lovable or delightful when they are as intelligent and interesting as they are. We get a genuine sense of Jake and Tony’s personalities and how these change or adapt when they are together and apart.

The picture forces us to observe—sometimes something important, other times nothing of relevance. We watch the boys the ride scooters and roller skate, play video games, sketch, attend acting classes, interact with their peers at school or at the park. We watch the parents at work, how their entire being changes when at home, their reactions to conflicts in which there are no easy solutions. Notice how images from the chest up are employed more often toward the latter half as if to magnify the stresses everybody is going through.

But the picture is also about listening. We listen to the boys talk about what they want to become, their interests, their hobbies, what they think about their parents and each other. We listen to the adults sometimes talking in circles unnecessarily, stressing out about money, how happy they are that the boys have formed a strong connection. And then we listen to the interactions between young and old yet there is almost always a rift there even when they are connecting. Notice that the decibels have gone up as the story begins to conclude, as if to release the strain that everyone has carried inside them for so long.

There is a vitality and rhythm to “Little Men” that many films simply lack or do not at all bother to achieve. And yet these films are supposed to be about every day lives of every day people. Sachs understands that in order for the big picture to be entirely believable, the details must be exactly right or else discerning viewers would see right through the sham. He respects us as observers and so we can’t help but identify, or at very least respect, his project. And this is why “Little Men” stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries.

Keep the Lights On

Keep the Lights On (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

In 1998, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker, meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer, through a phone sex line. They meet up, have sex, and decide that what they have might be worth pursuing on a more intimate level. But Paul has a secret: he has a habit of smoking crack cocaine. By 2000, this habit has grown into an addiction so ferocious, Paul does not come home or call for days. Erik cares for Paul so much that he feels it is his responsibility to hang on even if it becomes increasingly clear that their relationship is no longer worth salvaging.

“Keep the Lights On,” based on the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, has a fascinating story about love and self-sacrifice that is untethered to sexual orientation despite its gay characters and their chosen lifestyles, but its style hinders it from becoming a truly special film. It feels as though we are only given half of the story which is problematic when we are asked to identify, relate, and empathize with its subjects.

The story takes place over a span of eight years. Since it strives to be an intimate drama, I would have preferred it to have had a longer running time given its scope. However, it runs for less than two hours which means sacrifices in terms of details must be made. It is counterintuitive because intimate dramas, if done right, tend to grow all the more beautiful and encompassing the more detail we asked to wade through. Its chosen style of storytelling makes for an uneasy viewing given that it jumps forward in time without much warning. Instead of being enveloped in the experience of Erik and Paul’s struggle, we are often left orienting ourselves and asking questions like whether a couple of days or months have passed since the scene that has just ended.

The initial phases of the relationship are mostly absent. They are provided to us in mere glimpses and so when later dialogue such as, “We had some good times together, didn’t we?” My brows wrinkled from the strain of trying to come up with an example. While it is not necessary to have everything spelled out for the audience, we must be able to be on the characters’ wavelengths during important moments of discovery. Since we are not given the chance to really appreciate the building blocks of the relationship, when the inevitable conflicts arrive, they are consistently difficult to buy into completely.

This is not to suggest that the acting is in any way subpar. On the contrary, Lindhardt and Booth seem capable of doing or projecting more despite the limitations of the film’s style. While Booth somehow still manages to look good despite his character’s drug addiction, I liked that I kept wondering if Paul felt ashamed for being enslaved to highs that quickly go away. Meanwhile, Lindhardt injects a sensitive ferociousness to Erik. The character made me question, if I were in a similar situation, how much I would able or willing to put up with. The love that he gives to Paul is significantly more than what he receives. It is unfair and it inspires us to be angry and frustrated of what the partners have or no longer have.

Despite my initial concerns that people, especially those who are not exposed to many LGBT individuals but are nonetheless open to learning more about them, might get the impression that all gays lead a lifestyle similar to the characters found here, “Keep the Lights On,” directed by Ira Sachs, has a story worth telling behind its missteps. I could not help but imagine the possibilities if it had not been so limited.