Just about everything clicks in director Ira Sachs' quietly eloquent Love is Strange, except the title. The longtime romance of painter Ben (John Lithgow) and music teacher George (Alfred Molina) doesn't seem at all odd. The men's lives, however, do take a sudden turn away from the ordinary.
The story begins in a mysterious flurry of morning activity that's soon explained. After Ben and George's nearly four decades together, same-sex marriage has become legal in New York, and the men have decided to take what hardly seems a plunge.
Yet it is, because the Catholic school where George directs the choir can accept his sexuality, but not his nuptials. The upbeat wedding reception is soon followed by another get-together, in which the two men inform their family and friends that they can no longer afford their Manhattan apartment.
Leaving the city is not worthy of discussion, because George will continue to give piano lessons there and because, well, it just isn't. So the newly legal pair is forced to uncouple: George will live with two friends from the building, gay cops known as "the policewomen" (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). And Ben will move in with his nephew's family in a semi-gentrified section of Queens.
Although his kinship is with Elliot (Darren Burrows), Ben will be dealing mostly with his nephew's wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and his new roommate, the couple's teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Because novelist Kate works at home, and because Joey is more her responsibility than Elliott's, most of Ben's conflicts are with her. Living with your too-chatty uncle-in-law is very different from visiting him on special occasions.
George's enthusiasms include Chopin, whose delicate music is heard frequently throughout the movie, not just during piano lessons. The piano teacher must endure his new roommates' taste for thumping electronic dance music and frequent parties, as well as his separation from Ben. (Later, in a subtly poignant touch, a classical music concert stands in for a significant event the audience doesn't witness.)
Things are more complicated in Queens, where Joey is unhappy to share his bedroom and disinclined to reveal any personal information to his parents. Kate, who's always been supportive of Ben and George, now worries that Joey is too close to his somewhat older best friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach). And both Kate and Joey are concerned when Ben asks Vlad to pose for him.
Neither of these conflicts leads directly to crisis, and Sachs' naturalistic and sometimes elliptical style doesn't telegraph major developments. As in life, things happen. Sometimes the events that seem crucial evaporate without lingering effects, while catastrophe arrives without foreshadowing.
Scripted by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, the movie is warm, unforced and believable. Much of that can be credited to Lithgow and Molina, who fully inhabit the roles of Ben and George. The rest of the actors, especially Tomei and Tahan, are equally persuasive.
Love Is Strange celebrates the enduring intimacy of two lovers, the timeless charms of a Woody Allen-like Manhattan and the miracle of rent control. But it can be ruefully comic, as when Ben interrupts Kate's writing by nattering about how he can't concentrate when other people are around, oblivious to the fact that he is other people.
Perhaps that is what's strange about Ben and George's love: that it could even happen in a world where misunderstanding is the norm.
Before Charlie McDowell's fantastical debut feature The One I Love descends completely down the rabbit hole, it begins with a more everyday kind of dream. Ethan (Mark Duplass), trying to rekindle the romance in his failing marriage to Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), hopes that one magic night might do the trick. To celebrate their anniversary, he gets Sophie to re-create the night the two met, when they sneaked into a stranger's backyard to swim in their pool, only to be caught by the homeowner.
Of course, the fanciful re-creation backfires when the owner never appears, despite Ethan's calling out to him after diving in. Evidently there's no panacea for his and Sophie's problems — lingering distrust after some infidelity, Sophie's sense that "happiness is now something we need to re-create" — though that doesn't stop their therapist (Ted Danson) from suggesting his own cure-all: a weekend getaway to an idyllic countryside estate.
Initially, the retreat appears to work wonders. On the first night, the two make dinner, they get high, and eventually, as they explore the nearby guesthouse, they seem to rediscover a playfulness in their relationship. They even have sex. It's all quite lovely until Sophie, returning to the main house, discovers Ethan asleep on the couch. He remembers nothing beyond dinner and smoking up.
The next morning, after spending the rest of the night alone in the guesthouse, Ethan wakes up to Sophie, who has seemingly forgotten about the previous night's disagreement, making breakfast. But Ethan notices that something's off with the food she's preparing: "You hate it when I eat bacon," he says suspiciously.
(In interviews about the movie, Moss and Duplass have been fairly adamant about not spoiling the plot much further than this. But frankly, I don't think the movie can be ruined by disclosing a plot twist that occurs 20 minutes in. It's more interesting than that. Still, if you want the full surprise, you've been warned.)
Instead of discovering a cure to their marriage woes, Sophie and Ethan discover a guesthouse that seemingly contains an alternate dimension in which their doppelgangers reside. Considering how outrageous the twist sounds now that I write it, it's particularly impressive how naturally the film introduces it.
McDowell and writer Justin Lader don't resort to shock tactics by having, say, the two Ethans come face to face suddenly. The reveal is gradual and infused with comedy. While still under the impression that he's talking to the real Sophie, Ethan asks doppel-Sophie why she claimed they had sex the night before. Was she so drunk she imagined the whole thing? Was it a failed joke? Sophie's double tries feebly to explain the moment away: "Honestly, it was just one of those things, you know?"
Like in other doppelganger scenarios — such as, most recently, The Double and Enemy — Ethan and Sophie's doubles represent idealized versions of themselves, although in this case the fantasy is not self-directed but a product of Sophie and Ethan's illusions about each other. The guesthouse creates the fantasy partners that both Ethan and Sophie have been missing: the husband that's playful, romantic and agrees to wear contacts instead of glasses; the wife that's forgiving, affectionate and lets you eat bacon.
In service of a story about a relationship in distress, the gimmick is fairly on the nose, no doubt. It becomes clear fairly early in the film that what Sophie wants Ethan to be has become increasingly distanced from the reality of the man in front of her — hence the luck of finding a new and improved double! Nevertheless, it's a gimmick that is also easy to condone for the sake of seeing Moss and Duplass, both superb in their roles, play out a Before Midnight-like scenario.
McDowell and Lader, though, run out of patience or ideas for the broken marriage plotline halfway through, shifting focus almost entirely to the science fiction elements of the plot. That means, more than anything, that the two decide we need a semi-reasonable explanation for the magic of the guesthouse. The resulting twist is hastily expounded, far-fetched, filled with gaping holes in logic, and all the more frustrating for its pointlessness. If you haven't bought into the premise by the time the film gets to these explanations, it's hard to imagine that half-cogent reasoning will win you over.
The only thing that saves the movie once it reaches that point is the pleasure of watching Moss and Duplass. In distinguishing the two versions of their characters, both offer simple but precise physical transformations, particularly Moss, who distinguishes guesthouse Sophie by softening her voice and repeatedly tilting her head down to better give coy and flirtatious looks up at Ethan.
The film's dialogue was largely improvised, as it is usually in films featuring Duplass, and that produces a richness in the actors' reactions. Simple gestures, from how Sophie responds to Ethan's kisses to how the two laugh at each other's jokes, show all we need to know about both the strains and lingering satisfactions in their relationship.
It's particularly disappointing, then, that McDowell's eventual emphasis on the film's sci-fi elements hampers the natural feeling in Ethan and Sophie's interactions: It forces Ethan into repeated exclamations of how "weird" the guesthouse is as he and Sophie repeat arguments about the true nature of their doubles. But more generally, the direction the plot takes shifts The One I Love away from what was initially charming about its story. It begins by exploring how fantasy intrudes on and affects our perceptions of reality; it ends by trying too hard to convince us that its fantasies could, somehow, be real.
Today's episode of World Cafe's Latin Roots is an unusual one, in which writer and radio personality Catalina Maria Johnson explores what she calls "Mystical South America."
Johnson says she first heard the music through visual arts, and describes it as an "ecological, Indian, spiritual, organic movement" that has excited electronic musicians in Argentina. In this segment, she showcases music by Gaby Kerpel and Chancha Via Circuito.
- 'Carnabailito,' Gaby Kerpel
- 'Coplita,' Chancha Via Circuito
Reporters and editors have to make editorial judgments every day for which there is no single right answer. NPR West Bureau Chief Jason DeRose and reporter Alex Schmidt made one such call as they edited Schmidt's story about bicyclists in Los Angeles who move in group "trains" for support and safety. Schmidt recorded her experiences while biking with one train and then separately interviewed a driver who admitted to threatening bicyclists with her car.
Some listeners did not like how DeRose and Schmidt decided to handle the driver's admission in their report. See what call you might have made.
We pick up midway through the story:
SCHMIDT: And then there's the issue of safety. In fact, on the morning of the ride, a car cut through the single file of bicycles, missing one by just a couple of feet.
TRAIN LEADER CHARLES DANDINO: That was a dangerous maneuver.
SCHMIDT: So perhaps the greatest obstacle to bike trains is that drivers don't like sharing the road.
JACKIE BURKE: It's like they enjoy taking up the lanes.
SCHMIDT: Jackie Burke has lived in LA her whole life, and bicyclists slowing her down drive her crazy.
BURKE: It's very frustrating to the point where I want to just run them off the road. And I've actually kind of done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things just to scare them to try to intimidate them to kind of get out of my way.
SCHMIDT: With road conditions like those, it's no wonder our conductor has been playing a mellow soundtrack piped through a small speaker...
After the piece aired, tweets like this one from handle @KristinJVal started arriving almost immediately:
woah WTF, wow. Don't usually hear NPR guests saying they intentionally bully and threaten death
And this one from handle @msfour:
At the very least, it's disappointing that the remark passed without comment or response.
Then came the emails. "NPR should know better than to allow quotes like this without adding that this individual is doing something both illegal and life-threatening," wrote Lauren Welsh of Atlanta, GA.
Frank Wilson of New Haven, Conn., expressed "disgust" with the editorial decision, explaining with some philosophical thoughtfulness: "A society which fails to challenge aggressive actions by citizens who essentially put others in physical peril by driving cars (which can be deadly weapons) too closely, is to my mind, no longer civil. Perhaps the last decade of wars has made some callous, but to fail to point out that aggressive driving is legally actionable and potentially fatal to unprotected bicyclists, is in my opinion a glaring journalistic lapse."
DeRose and Schmidt, however, say that they purposefully left the comment to stand on its own. They did so after discussing some of these same objections. DeRose, an accomplished editor who oversees the largest bureau outside of Washington, remains convinced that the right call was made. He wrote to me:
Aggressive drivers are a problem for bikers in L.A.. While recording, the reporter observed near misses between bikes and cars. She then spoke with drivers who don't like sharing the road with bikes. It's clear from the reporter's framing of the quote that this behavior—aggressive driving—is precisely one of the reasons why the bike caravans exist in the first place. The quote demonstrates exactly what bikers are up against.
Schmidt, who has received the brunt of the complaints, is a little more ambivalent:
I think a story about bicyclists feeling threatened, and banding together for safety, benefits from the perspective of one of the people causing the fear. It's shocking to hear someone speak this way, but it is the reality of how many drivers feel. Road rage is a problem.
Did the statement deserve a response? Truly, I am not sure. On one hand, I can see how leaving it hanging may sound like we think it's okay behavior, or maybe just "funny, haha." On the other hand, there are plenty of behaviors that don't need to be acknowledged as wrong. In a story about murder, must we point out that murder is illegal? Elder abuse? Verbally harassing someone on the street? Where do we draw the line? (There are laws on the books in both California and L.A. that aim to keep bicyclists safe.) Are there behaviors that are just in the process of being collectively "called out" and acknowledged as wrong? As we slowly evolve from car-centric cities to multimodal ones, perhaps bicyclist harassment is one of these.
I do think Jackie Burke indicted herself without help from me or any response at all. But again, I am not sure of the answer here. I'd also be interested in sussing out, if the statement did get a response, what exactly that would be.
If anyone cares to engage, I'd love a wider conversation about this and it would certainly inform my reporting going forward.
Agree with their decision or not, at least they made it openly and thoughtfully—a judgment call, in other words, made with defensible reasoning that reflects the care and intelligence that goes into so much of NPR's reporting.
Still, I side with the critics who would have liked a line noting that what the driver admitted to was dangerous and illegal. It could be as simple as the reporter saying: "That, of course, is dangerous and illegal." The lack of such editorial guidance and context is a common complaint from listeners about many NPR stories, as I wrote last week. Otherwise, it seems as if the driver's attitude and actions in this case are normal, even acceptable. At least to me.
But I recognize the journalistic legitimacy and storytelling power of DeRose's argument. It credits the audience with having the intelligence to know that buzzing a bicyclist is dangerous and illegal, even if it is not so obvious as murder.
The edit of the story also draws on that famous advice to writers, filmmakers and radio producers to evoke rather than explain. Jackie Burke's quote certainly evokes.
Each of us will have our own judgment of whether this was enough on its own, within the context of the story, or whether an on-air comment by the reporter would have been helpful or, instead, unnecessary and perhaps even annoying.
In a related matter, the piece, which aired July 29 on Morning Edition, was a repeat of a story that first ran last December. Host Renee Montagne introduced the July airing as an "encore report," but if you didn't know what this meant, you didn't realize that you were listening to a rerun. In a column last November, I agreed with listeners who demanded that reruns be better labeled. I still think that.
Part of the logic behind the encores is that different NPR shows largely have different audiences. That makes sense. The first airing of this particular story on Weekends On All Things Considered, however, received many similar complaints, suggesting that perhaps they should have been addressed in some way the second time around.
Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this article.
- 'Carnabailito,' Gaby Kerpel
- 'Coplita,' Chancha Via Circuito
Meshell Ndegeocello broke through with her hit song "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" in the '90s, then turned to more brooding and eclectic fare with her 1999 album Bitter. Her experimentation has continued even when she's recording other artists' work, as she does on last year's Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication To Nina Simone.
Here, Ndegeocello explains how Simone's work continues to influence her own — and performs songs from her own new album, Comet, Come To Me.
- 'Carnabailito,' Gaby Kerpel
- 'Coplita,' Chancha Via Circuito