Then She Found Me (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
April (Helen Hunt) is thirty-nine, recently married, planning—still—to get pregnant despite her mother and brother’s insistence (Lynn Cohen, Ben Shenkman) that she should adopt, unaware that her husband wishes to leave her. When Ben (Matthew Broderick) finally summons the courage to tell her that he can no longer be in their marriage, a special someone enter’s April’s life: her biological mother, Bernice (Bette Midler), a talk show host, who showers her daughter with attention in order to make up for lost time.
Though the picture’s molecular makeup shares some genes with soap operas, from the resurfacing of a person from the past to feeling torn between two lovers when only one is clearly right for our protagonist, “Then She Found Me,” based on the Elinor Lipman’s novel, benefits from having cast good actors who really know how to make a three-star meal from minimal trash-bound bits and pieces. The actors’ performances won me over precisely because they are mindful of when and how to shift the mood of an interaction.
We get to know several facets of April’s recent tumultuous life. Sure, she wants a baby that she is related to by blood but there is enough subtle remarks and occurrences sprinkled throughout that maybe her wanting to give birth and raise a child is a byproduct of her abandonment issues. There are a few confronting early scenes among April, her brother, and adoptive mother. Many things about their relationship are noticeable from an outsider’s perspective but not much are expressed when they should be.
Colin Firth does his usual charming British guy schtick but it works here. He plays Frank, the father of one of April’s students, with some unpredictability with regards to his emotional state. Having left by his wife and has no choice but to care for their two children, over time there is a hidden rage that has accumulated inside him. I liked the scenes when he lashes out at April. There is romance in what they share because he has learned to love and care for April so much that, during his most vulnerable, he confuses his new girlfriend for his ex-wife. That confusion he feels is interesting because Frank has to reroute the positive feelings he has for his wife to a new woman who can be good to him.
Midler gives the funniest performance because she is willing to go all the way, even if it means coming off silly. Like Firth’s character, her jolliness is only the surface. Bernice’s successes in her career came with a price and there are moments when we are given glimpses that might suggest she is happy with the choices she made when she was young. I admired that April and Bernice’s relationship does not turn into an excessively sentimental mother-daughter bonding. Instead, April continues to keep a close watch on Bernice even everything appears to be good. I liked that the screenplay by Alice Arlen, Victor Levin, and Helen Hunt is constantly attuned to April’s fear of being left behind.
“Then She Found Me,” directed by Helen Hunt, is at its best when the comedic and dramatic elements appear to come about naturally. We can believe that these people do exist somewhere out there and so we are willing to invest in them and wonder what they are thinking or feeling when faced with struggles that leave little room for easy solutions.
Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Beckoff (Harvey Fierstein) is a female impersonator who does not have much luck when it comes to sustaining a long-lasting love life. He admits to camera that he has slept with more men than there are names in the bible—old and new testament combined. So it comes as a surprise to him when he meets Ed (Brian Kerwin) in a gay bar, showing genuine interest in who he is and what he wants in life. Although Ed has told Arnold that he dates women at times, this becomes a big problem when Ed begins to want something else, a woman’s touch, outside of their relationship. It seems like Arnold has picked up one of those men again.
Based on the play and screenplay by Harvey Fierstein, “Torch Song Trilogy” consists of three episodes, the first taking place in 1971 and the last in 1980. It is tonally unpredictable for the most part, almost manic, comedy and tragedy strike when least expected and in most unlikely places. In some ways, it is a lot like a soap opera: often there are big reactions to relatively slow developments. A lot of the scenes might have worked better if played with silence than shouting.
Arnold’s loneliness is communicated effectively. Throughout the decade, we see him change from someone who has a clingy, bug-like annoyance to a person who shows a little exhaustion but is still that same fighter who wants what he feels he deserves. Fierstein plays his character with fire. We feel that he really understands what Arnold is all about. Arnold may be a drag queen by night, a source of entertainment to be seen and criticized by the public, but he is no fool no matter what time of day. I enjoyed watching him assessing risks and wondering if he should go ahead and take a course of action. With so much time and thought he puts into some of his decisions, we can tell he has had experience in the romance department and perhaps he had been really hurt before.
The two key men in Arnold’s life are nicely played Kerwin and Matthew Broderick, the latter a male model with whom Arnold had kindly taken to his home after the twenty-one-year-old has had one drink too many. It is most appropriate that Ed has an unpredictability to him. I was fascinated with the fact that although he is easy to label himself as a bisexual, he is not comfortable with its reality. He can be with a man but he is afraid to live with one. Broderick’s character, Alan, is different. He is comfortable with the entire aspect of being queer and yet he is a curiosity. One of the more memorable scenes involves Arnold and Alan being invited to Ed’s farm.
The third episode is perhaps one that demands the most attention. Mrs. Beckoff (Anne Bancroft) believes that being gay is a sickness and not once does she allow Arnold to forget it. She is a very traditional Jewish woman who genuinely believes that her son will meet a girl one day and marry her. Imagine her reaction when she is forced to face reality. The fights that she and Arnold share cut deeply. After the screaming and shouting comes the inevitable silence. Prejudice is and will remain ingrained in many.
Even though it offers a good share of amusing bits, “Torch Song Trilogy” does not let us forget the sadness coursing through its veins. Does queer love require more from its participants than heterosexual love? Maybe it does, at least with the way things are right now and will be for many decades to come, or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure the film has one either. But it sure is interesting to consider.
Tower Heist (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street kingpin and the owner of a posh high-rise condominium, was arrested for fraud which left Josh (Ben Stiller), the building manager, and the rest of his staff shocked and angry. It turned out that Shaw invested their pensions in various schemes and lost it all. Eventually, though, an idea scurried into Josh’s head. There was a safe in Shaw’s penthouse which contained about twenty million dollars. With the help of Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’ brother-in-law, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), one of the residents who was recently bankrupt, Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), the establishment’s recent hire, and Slide (Eddie Murphy), one of Josh’ neighbor with a criminal background, they could purloin the money and distribute it to the staff. “Tower Heist,” directed by Brett Ratner, was uneven in tone and pacing with strong but often inconsistent laughs. The exposition was slow but necessary because it allowed us to see Josh’ pride in his work. As a building manager, he was more than a guy in a suit who bossed people around. He was determined to perform his job well. In order to be successful in his occupation, he needed to be liked which meant that he was required to get to know the residents beyond their superficial needs and to have a certain insight in terms of his co-workers’ personal lives. Since he was familiar to details and habits, when he did eventually decide to plot the heist, we were able to believe that he could succeed. The funniest parts of the picture were found in the middle prior to the actual break-in. In one of the scenes, Slide was not convinced that Josh and his friends would be able to go through with the heist. In order to be convinced, he assigned the tyro thieves to shoplift fifty dollars worth of items at the mall. There was joy and energy in the way each of the characters had to summon the courage to take something without paying for it. I just lost it when the store attendant walked away to get a catalogue and Charlie tried to pick up a pair of earrings with his mouth. I’ve never stolen anything from a store so I think that if I was dared to do it, I’d make a mess of things out of anxiety. Another very funny scene was a discussion about lesbians and why their breasts were better than heterosexual women’s. Just when I expected that the screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson might turn mean-spirited, I was surprised that there was always a light-heartedness in the material. What didn’t work for me were the more serious scenes. In a more solemn movie about a person losing his entire savings, Lester (Stephen Henderson), the hotel’s doorkeeper, walking toward a moving train and trying to jump in front of it would have had more emotional impact. When the picture attempted to be more serious, it felt rather cheap. Like the most engaging heist movies, getting to the object of interest was the easy part. There was a running theme about playing chess. When Josh and company broke into the building, I thought it was more like watching people playing checkers–while some strategy was involved, it was straightforward. I was underwhelmed. The nearly impossible task was getting away with it. It was the point where, finally, I felt like I was watching a chess game. There were always unforeseen forces that threatened to destroy the operation. I wish there were more scenes of Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), one of the hotel’s cleaning ladies, being sassy and having her way with men. “Tower Heist” gave a few laugh-out-loud moments but it could have been more snarky, therefore funnier. Poke fun of the more improbable physics employed, for instance. By being a step ahead of the audience who think they know better, the picture can appear smarter and get the last laugh.
The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of people were disappointed by this animated flick but I must say that I enjoyed it. It may not be as intelligently written or have as deep a story as most Pixar films bit it had enough heart to keep me interested from beginning to end. Matthew Broderick lends his voice as Despereaux, a mouse of small stature with big eyes, big ears and a strong sense of smell. He’s not like any other mouse because he doesn’t know how to be scared of certain things like a typical mouse should. In fact, he thrives on the excitement of acquiring cheese from mousetraps and reading books instead of eating them. I thought the first part of the film was fascinating in a psychological point of view because Despereaux, a youngster mouse, is encouraged to be scared of pretty much everything. Even though he is a mouse, he describes himself as a gentleman who is brave and honorable. The joke/reverse psychology works in its own universe and as a lesson for younger viewers. However, what did not work as well for me was Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman). Roscuro accidentally “killed” the queen (via drowning in soup or a heart attack?) which drives the king to banish rats out of the kingdom as well as cooking soup, which is the kingdom’s source of happiness. As the kingdom plunges into a depression, Roscuro feels extreme guilt and, like Despereaux, he feels like an outcast and seeks redemption. The third outcast is Miggery Sow who I initially thought had some sort of a mental disorder but, with a little bit of psychoanalysis, I eventually came to a conclusion that she wants to be treated like a princess (instead of actually being one as she portrayed) because she wasn’t loved as a child. Although her character wasn’t as developed as I wanted it to be, what I liked about her part of the story was that it was open to interpretation. I thought it was weird how Roscuro and Miggery Sow, one way or another, become a villain and I wasn’t sure of the filmmakers wanted the audiences to think that. This is one of those films that could’ve benefited more if it had a longer running time. It tried to tackle three main characters but it wasn’t successful because the last two I mentioned weren’t explored enough. Other notable voices include Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Lloyd. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s books, “The Tale of Despereaux” may not have been a critical success but the animation is impressive and it has enough implications for the older audiences if one were to look closely.