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Spike Jonze gives peek at new Viceland channel

The new Viceland cable channel that launches next month will have series with actress Ellen Page exploring gay and lesbian life around the world, actor Michael K. Williams telling about black market economies and celebrity chef Eddie Huang illustrating stories about politics, culture and food.

Filmmaker Spike Jonze, the creative director of Viceland, offered a first peek into the results of last year’s deal between Vice Media and the A&E Networks. Viceland is taking over the H2 network on Feb. 29.

Founded as a punk magazine in Canada in 1994, Vice Media has exploded in influence with a young audience. Vice airs a documentary series on HBO and will be starting a news series on the network later this year, Disney reportedly invested in the company and A&E has given them a channel that’s a mix of hard-edged culture and lifestyle series.

“We’re trying to make a channel that’s personal, that feels like a group of people trying to understand the world we live in,” Jonze said.

Although Viceland will acquire some documentaries and movies, the heart of the channel will be unscripted series that are passion projects for individual filmmakers. They have the irreverent, action-packed style familiar to Vice’s fans, and tell stories from parts of the world not covered heavily by traditional news organizations.

Page’s “Gaycation,” co-produced and co-hosted by Ian Daniel, will likely have the highest profile. Page attracted attention a few months ago for bringing a film crew and questioning Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz about gay rights while he campaigned at the Iowa state fair. Page and Daniel, who are both gay, meet a masked man in Brazil who proudly talks about killing gays.

“I’m hoping to explore what it means to be LGBT all over the world,” Page said.

Williams’ first episode of “Black Market” explores auto theft in Newark, N.J., the city where he grew up — and was once arrested for stealing a car.

Based on clips screened, “Huang’s World,” from the author of “Fresh Off the Boat,” looks like an edgier version of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” on CNN.

Actress and model Hailey Gates is also making a travelogue show, using the fashion world as a window into issues like women’s rights. Rapper Action Bronson hosts a show, with an unpublishable title, focused on food and music. “Weediquette” looks at the marijuana industry as it becomes legalized in more jurisdictions, “Flophouse” is about communities of young comics across the country and “Noisey” looks at cities through the eyes of musicians like Kendrick Lamar.

While most of Viceland’s shows are produced internally, Jonze said outside companies are also being used. A sketch comedy show from actor Ben Stiller’s production company is in the works, for instance.

Being considered a cultural network — and not news like the programs Vice makes for HBO — takes some of the pressure off Viceland’s leaders, Jonze said.

“We can be completely subjective,” he said. “We don’t have to be objective journalists.” 

Review: ‘Freeheld’ is based on real-life domestic partner case

Few actresses bring the simple authenticity to the screen that Julianne Moore does; it’s virtually impossible to imagine this actress sounding a false note. And so it’s hardly a surprise that she is deeply convincing — indeed, heartbreaking at times — in the real-life role of Laurel Hester, a dying woman who fought to her last breath to give her domestic partner rights to her pension benefits.

If Freeheld, directed by Peter Sollett, packs much less of a punch than did Moore’s shattering Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice, which justly won her an Oscar, it’s not because of the acting — Ellen Page and Michael Shannon also turn in admirable work — but because the film (and the script by Ron Nyswaner) doesn’t give these characters, or their relationships, enough detail and depth to really bring us in below the surface. Instead, it’s a well-made but matter-of-fact account of a gripping story, one made more poignant by the advances made in gay rights in the decade since.

We begin in 2002. Laurel Hester is a devoted police detective in Ocean County, New Jersey, with two decades of work under her belt and the goal of becoming the first female lieutenant on her force. With this goal in mind, she hides her sexuality from colleagues, even from her longtime partner, Dane (Shannon). Indeed, she goes all the way to Pennsylvania to find a date. At a volleyball game, she meets Stacie Andree (Page), a much younger auto mechanic.

A year later, they’re an established couple, renovating a home and becoming official domestic partners. But then tragedy hits. A persistent pain in Laurel’s torso turns out to be advanced lung cancer. Stacie vows the couple will beat the disease. Laurel, never one for sugarcoating a situation, knows how bleak the odds are.

The movie then takes an abrupt turn into a legal drama. Laurel requests in writing that her pension benefits be transferred to Stacie, who otherwise will have to leave their beloved home, upon her death. The decision falls to the Ocean County freeholders, a body of five Republicans, and they turn her down, despite the existence of a state Domestic Partnership Act. One of the freeholders worries: “People could just make anybody their partners.” Only one member is sympathetic to Laurel’s cause, but joins in a unanimous vote.

The fight escalates when Laurel appears at a freeholder’s meeting, but the decision remains the same. The case gets into the media, though, and pressure grows. Meanwhile, we watch Laurel endure the ravages of chemo, see her get violently ill, see her hair fall out. We’ve watched this sad trajectory in countless movies, but Moore has a way of making most anything seem like we haven’t quite seen it before.

The film changes tone yet again when Steve Carell enters the picture as Steven Goldstein, a larger-than-life activist who urges Laurel to broaden her fight to include gay marriage. Laurel, ever the pragmatist, says that’s not her battle. Carell makes Goldstein brash, passionate and broadly funny, and though his entertaining characterization might well be accurate (the real Goldstein was sitting in front of me at my screening, and seemed to greatly enjoy the portrayal), the sudden influx of humor is somewhat jarring, given the tone until then.

The final scenes are both cathartic and, in the case of Laurel’s final moments, hard to watch — Moore is frail, white, and completely bald. It’s impressive to see the photos of real-life scenes at the end, and realize how carefully the filmmakers recreated the story.

And it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment when an onscreen epilogue reminds us that in June, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry. Which makes Freeheld an important lesson in how quickly times, and attitudes, can change.

Freeheld, a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.” Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


Fall movie season brings a wealth of quality LGBT feature films

Ellen Page was first approached about the true-life gay rights drama Freeheld when she was 21, just coming off her breakthrough in Juno. It was seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a right, and six before Page, herself, came out.

“It really did align with an internal process I was going through with my own identity, with my own struggles of being closeted,” says Page of Freeheld. “It’s lovely to be part of a film that’s reflecting upon why we need the Supreme Court ruling and why we need to continue to strive to equality. I think the film is reflecting a time when that change is happening.”

As much as change is in the air in 2015, it’s also on the screen. Though Hollywood’s track record when it comes to telling the stories of LGBT lives is far from gleaming, this fall season boasts one of the richest and most varied batch of films yet to dramatize the struggles of gay and transgendered people.

Freeheld (in theaters Oct. 2) is about Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Page). When Hester, an Ocean County, New Jersey, police officer, began dying of terminal lung cancer in 2005, she appealed to the county Board of Freeholders to allow her pension to go to Andree. Though it would have been automatic for a married couple, the board initially refused.

Eight years after a documentary short on Hester won an Oscar, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has penned the dramatization, directed by Peter Sollett and co-starring Steve Carell and Michael Shannon.

Todd Haynes’ Carol (out Nov. 20), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is about the illicit love affair between two women (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara) in the conservative 1950s. A lushly detailed period film, thick with an atmosphere of socially enforced repression, the film rides a wave of praise from the Cannes Film Festival, where Mara shared in the best actress award.

Blanchett, in an interview at Cannes, said that while love between two lesbians is of course central to Carol, it’s ultimately about love, regardless of gender.

“There’s something Romeo and Juliet-esque about it,” Blanchett said. “There’s a universality to the love story that moves it out of the niche. It’s about the perspective or the feeling of being in love for the first time. And, yes, it’s not immaterial that there are two women at the center of it. But at certain moments, it kind of is.”

Also in November is The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Based on the 1920s Copenhagen novel by David Ebershoff and starring Eddie Redmayne, it’s a fictionalized account of Lili Elbe, among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

While that trio of films is expected to play major roles in awards season, there are others in the mix, too.

Roland Emmerich, taking a break from the disaster spectacles like White House Down and The Day After Tomorrow, depicts one of the most pivotal moments in the gay rights movement in Stonewall (Sept. 25), a drama set around the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village.

And months after the celebrated transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, About Ray (Sept. 18) is about a teenager’s (Elle Fanning) transition from female to male, and how her family reacts.

It can be overly optimistic to take any seasonal trend as a sign of wider industry progress. Studies have confirmed that Hollywood continues to lag in representing the diversity of its audiences. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school recently found that among the 4,610 speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2014, only 19 were lesbian, gay or bisexual. None were transgender.

Many of these films also struggled to make it to the big screen. It took Carol almost two decades to finally get made; screenwriter Phyllis Nagy wrote her first draft in 1996.

Equality for LGBT people also, of course, continues to be a divisive issue for some across the country. Page recently confronted presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair on his views on gay rights.

But in a year marked by significant advancement for gay rights, many, like Page, are buoyed by the upswing in this fall’s films — a crop of movies that add more lesbian and transgender stories to the indelible, but largely male movies (Philadelphia, Milk, Brokeback Mountain) that have come before.

“I wish there were more gay stories and I do think that that’s happening,” she says. “That does seem like something that’s getting a lot stronger, thankfully — a voice that’s getting stronger, a community that’s getting stronger.”

Mutant Pride: Retro style, globe-trotting intrigue in the latest ‘X-Men’

Matthew Vaughn and a superb cast reinvigorated the franchise with cool retro style and globe-trotting intrigue in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” The series’ original director, Bryan Singer, continues that momentum in the vigorously entertaining “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” While it’s more dramatically diffuse than the reboot and lacks a definitive villain, the new film is shot through with a stirring reverence for the Marvel Comics characters and their universe. And it ups the stakes by threatening nothing less than the genocide of the mutant population, among them faces old and new.

Hardcore followers will have a geek field day dissecting the challenging pretzel logic of writer-producer Simon Kinberg’s screenplay, from a story by Jane Goldman, Kinberg and Vaughn, who had originally planned to direct. The central premise comes from the 1981 Uncanny X-Men comic “Days of Future Past,” in which Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her consciousness transference powers to go back from a dystopian future and rewrite history.

Echoes of the Holocaust have rippled throughout the series, and Singer opens with present-day scenes of a desolate, burnt-out New York, where mutants and mutant-sympathizing humans have been rounded up in internment camps.

Jumping to a similarly devastated Moscow, we watch Kitty, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and a small band of mutants face an attack from the deadly Sentinels. Dropped in from airborne carrier ships, these robots are designed to track and destroy the mutant gene. They resemble towering, muscular versions of the aliens from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” constructed out of magnetic plates that allow them to change shape and adapt to whatever force is unleashed against them.

The mutants escape and regroup in the rubble of an ancient Chinese monastery with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry). The movie is missing an explanation of how traditional adversaries Professor X and Magneto reached a collaborative truce. But within the elastic boundaries of comic-book mythology that seems no big deal, and it’s nice to see their bromance rekindled.

Threatened with extinction, the mutant holdouts hatch a plan to return to the post-Vietnam Paris Peace Accord of 1973, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) killed Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a U.S. military scientist developing the Sentinels program. Mystique was captured and experimented on, with the transformative powers of her DNA tapped to perfect the Sentinels.

Wolverine’s ability to heal makes him the only one able to withstand the 40-year time jump. Kinberg’s script milks welcome humor out of sending the least diplomatic of the X-Men back to convince the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to join forces and stop the assassination that triggered anti-mutant hysteria. Having Wolverine awaken on a waterbed staring at a lava lamp and listening to Roberta Flack lightens the mood at just the right moment.

Looking Christ-like with his 1970s mop and scruffy beard, McAvoy’s Charles Xavier couldn’t be less like that of Stewart, with his steely but benevolent authority. Disillusioned, Charles is addicted to a serum produced by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that gives him the use of his legs but strips him of his telepathic powers. Professor X is the one character whose younger and older selves actually meet, in a scene that is among the movie’s most emotionally resonant.

There are also affecting moments when Wolverine encounters Major Bill Stryker (Josh Helman), triggering traumatic flash-forward memories of his painful physical transformation and his love for Jean Grey.

Perhaps the film’s standout sequence features the much-discussed new addition of Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver (“American Horror Story” regular Evan Peters). The rights dispute that kept the character out of previous films has been resolved, allowing him to appear in both the “X-Men” and “Avengers” franchises, albeit without cross-referencing. His super-speed skills are conveyed by shooting at 3,000 frames per second, notably when Peter runs around the walls during a fabulously staged Pentagon break-in, whimsically accompanied by Jim Croce singing “Time in a Bottle.” With his silver shag, Pink Floyd T-shirt and mischievous sense of humor, Peter is a terrific character who breathes playfulness into the movie, and many will be sorry he doesn’t stick around longer.

Fassbender’s young Erik/Magneto was the revelation of First Class, and the actor again shows riveting self-possession and charisma to burn — not least when he’s standing astride the roof of a moving train in bellbottoms while tearing up railway tracks. But this movie belongs to Jackman and Lawrence.

Logan/Wolverine has possibly never been more compelling. In his seventh turn in the role, Jackman brings powerful physicality, laconic humor and depths of sorrow beneath his gruffness that make him an unusually nuanced figure for a sci-fi action movie.

Switching from her honorable Hunger Games heroine into badass mode with supreme ease, Lawrence is sensational, whether slinking around in Mystique’s body-hugging blue reptilian skin, displaying the shape-shifter’s balletic fight skills or adopting seductive human form. Her romantic friendship with Charles, stretching back to their childhoods, adds poignancy to Mystique’s struggle, notably in a wonderful airport scene during which Professor X gets inside her head via random people in the terminal.

It’s hard to imagine fanboys having too much to grumble about here, as Singer has pulled together an ambitious, suspenseful screen chapter that secures a future for the franchise while facilitating continued reinvention. Audiences should sit tight through the end credits crawl for an enigmatic signoff scene that provides a taste of the next installment, X-Men: Apocalypse.

“X-Men,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language.” Running time: 131 minutes.