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Movies – To Grandmother’s House We Go

12 Sep
Grandma (79 minutes).  Before there was Ellen Degeneres or Jane Lynch or Ellen Page (though long after there was Moms Mabley), there was Lily Tomlin, the original (after Moms) lesbian comedienne.  I watched her as a child on Laugh-In and bought her comedy albums in high school.  During her long career all her gay fans knew she was gay, and it was never a secret exactly.  Her material is largely written by her life partner, Jane Wagner (they married on New Year’s Eve in 2013), and she appears, voluntarily, in the most famous documentary about closeted gays in Hollywood, The Celluloid Closet, to discuss what it is like to work in the film industry while gay.

But I think Grandma is the first movie where she plays a lesbian.  It’s a sweet and simple movie in a way, set in some crunchy-granola looking small California town (though it seems more like Eugene, Oregon) where you’d expect a retired, fixed income, lesbian poetry professor to live.  Tomlin plays this retiree, Elle, whose story begins about a year after her long-term partner has died of cancer, and she is dumping a much younger woman with whom she has taken up, played by Judy Greer, probably about 30 years younger than Elle.  Immediately after throwing Judy out of the house, Elle’s teenage grandchild Sage arrives (actress Julia Garner), looking for the $600 dollars she needs for an abortion.

It’s an oddly pro-family movie, given that it centers on scratching up the funds for an abortion and three generations (Elle’s daughter is played by Marcia Gay Harden – who looks fantastic for 56!) of unmarried women who each have only one child.  They do at least love and support each other and resolve some of their differences.  Tomlin gets to ham it up, beating up Sage’s bad boyfriend with a hockey stick, meeting her young girlfriend’s parents, making scenes in two different coffee shops (one owned by John Cho, one by Elizabeth Pena).  The cameos just keep coming (Sam Elliot is an old flame, Laverne Cox is an old friend) in this Alison Bechdel version of Tales of the City, where everything is twee, if downwardly mobile, and most of the conversations, fights, and arguments, are between two (or more) women.

There’s not a lot to Grandma and its politics are pretty off the shelf.  It was still entertaining and compares extremely favorably to the other gayish indie movie starring a comic out this year, Robin Williams’ depressing Boulevard.

Film:  B+          Libertarian quotient:    B

The Visit (94 minutes)

Though 15 minutes longer than Grandma, The Visit isn’t as good a value for your movie dollar.  I went to see it not just because M. Night Shyamalan wrote it, so it might be good, but because Jason Blum directed it.  First Jason is hot.  Second, he has this hyper-capitalist (and kind of anti-bankster) business model where he never spends more than $5 million to make movies that often earn $100 million.  He doesn’t pay actors and crew much, but instead gives them tiny percentages of the profits, a kind of late 90s IT start up approach (which made several of my friends or acquaintances with unimpressive MBA degrees AOL millionaires a decade and a half ago).


As a result the cast is largely unknown, though talented.  A single mom (Kathryn Hahn) sends her son and daughter, an annoyingly sex obsessed little androgynous white boy who wants to be a hypermasculine rapper and playa and an emotionally detached girl who is a wannabe adult, to stay with their estranged grandparents, whom mom hasn’t spoken to for 14 years.  The girl, and the boy under her direction, view the visit as primarily an opportunity to make a documentary film, not to discover lost relatives or re-connect with their family.

Grandma and grandpa get weirder and weirder every day, and especially at night, when they seem to run about the house, naked, animalistic, on all fours.  The kids stay locked in their room.

Shyamalan’s denouement, the twist or reveal, is a let down, and has to be cribbed from some episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents or some 1950’s collection of horror short stories.

Eventually, the kids, who have been Skyping with mom while she is on a cruise with a new boyfriend, turn their laptop camera toward the grandparents, who are outside in the yard (they’ve been complaining to mom about the weirdness for days).  And mom is distraught because — those aren’t her parents!  Seems homicidal maniacs from the local nut house where the real grandparents volunteered (as a substitute for having family?) have murdered and supplanted the real Nana and Pop Pop, so they could relive one last visit with grandkids (they were in the nut house for killing their own children).

This doesn’t seem very interesting to me, though the suspense was good up until the reveal.  I don’t know if Shyamalan was trying to say something about how our modern “virtual living” (dear blog reader) over the internet (Skype, incessant video recording and narrating) has murdered and supplanted our real lives and threatens our sanity.  If he was the execution (as it were) seems inadequate.

Film: B-     Libertarian quotient:  C