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20th Century Women

Free spirited single mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, is trying to raise her teenage son, Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann.  It is 1979 in Southern California and Dorothea runs a boarding house.  Because of Dorothea’s warm personality, her tenants are drawn into the lives of her and Jamie and they form an impromptu family.  Dorothea had Jamie late in life so the generation gap is their case is huge.  Like any teenager, Jamie is becoming sullen and disobedient.  This distresses his mother who hates to see him grow apart from her.

At first she tries to get her male tenant, William, played by Billy Crudup, to serve as a role model for Jamie.  But William, who likes working with his hands, and Jamie, who’s more thoughtful, don’t really connect.  So when that fails Dorothea asks Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, her female tenant, and Julie, played by Elle Fanning, Jamie’s best friend, to try and talk to him about his life.

But these two have their own trials.  Abbie is going through a cancer scare and Julie has severe self-esteem issues that result in her sleeping around with multiple partners that do not include Jamie to his great frustration, even though she comes over most nights and sleeps in his bed.  And what Jamie really wants is to understand his mother just as she wants to understand him.

First of all let me say that the movie is too long.  It drags in several places and they could have used more time in the editing suite to get it down to an hour and a half.  It has one of those false endings where it feels like the story has wrapped up but the movie goes on for another twenty minutes.  Plus great amounts of exposition is delivered through narration by Jamie, Dorothea and later the other characters.  So the film could have been a lot longer.  In my view narration adds a certain pretension to a film.  “This is a story worth commenting on.”  20th Century Women is about a teenage boy maturing a little bit and his mother not being able to handle it, hardly the stuff of epics.

But there’s a lot in this film that’s intriguing.  Writer/Director Mike Mills has created a troupe of interesting and quirky characters and put them in bizarre situations.  Despite the pacing problems the script has some very good dialog.  It also has a real sense of the passage of time.  The main plot takes place in the space of a few days but everything that happens is predicated on how the pasts of these characters have shaped them.  That’s true in any story but Mills really manages to emphasize the point.

20th Century Women is about people trying to understand each other.  One generation desperate to learn about another and a boy trying to understand girls.  Jamie tries to get his mother to talk about what she’s going through.  He wants to know about why she never tried to remarry and what she originally saw in his father.  She tries to listen to Talking Heads and Black Flag, hoping that will give her insight into what Jamie is thinking.  This movie has a great soundtrack by the way.

In short this movie has some wonderful moments and a few good laughs.  It is also messy, sad and confusing.  Sort of like life.

Silence

In 17th century Japan, Christianity was banned.  This made missionary work there extremely dangerous.  When Jesuit priest Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson goes missing with rumors of him renouncing his faith, two of his former pupils Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield and Father Garrpe, played by Adam Driver, insist on going to Japan to find their old mentor.  They consider the rumors of Ferreira’s apostasy to be slander and they desire to clear his name.

What follows is a meditation on the conflict between faith and pragmatism.  When the missionaries arrive in Japan, they are immediately aware that they are putting the coastal village that welcomes them in danger, especially the two leaders Mokichi, played by Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Ichizo, played by Yoshi Oida.  There is a grand inquisitor, played by Issei Ogata, roaming the countryside, trying to eradicate Christianity.  His methods are brutal.

The inquisitor has learned that it is more effective to not kill the missionaries but to kill their parishioners unless the priests renounce their faith publically.  This puts the priests in an untenable position.  They can save lives but at the cost of their souls and the goals of the Church which they have pledged their lives to.  And when Father Rodrigues prays to God for guidance…well that’s where they get the title of the movie.  The dilemma has confused his faith and rendered it mute.

This is a beautifully photographed film with muted colors and interesting camera angles.  The picturesque panoramas of the rocky Japanese coast are stunning.  There are mysterious shots of people walking out of fog and mist, and extreme close-ups of grimy hands holding crosses carved of wood or woven from reeds, small because of the necessity for hiding them.  Martin Scorsese, the director and Rodrigo Prieto the director of photography capture the feeling of coming to a dangerous and alien land through their images.

I will describe the pace of the film as meditative.  There were times when I wished they’d just get on with it but I knew going in that this was a two hour and forty one minute bladder buster.  In the hands of a lessor director this could have been one theological conversation after another but Scorsese keeps that palaver to a minimum.  And it does build in intensity.  What’s more the script by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo withholds any kind of judgement.  It shows the benefits and costs on both sides of the dilemma.  In another movie that might be seen as wishy-washy but here the filmmakers make it into a strength, showing the moral complications inherent in Rodrigues’s choice.

The performances were good although I will say that Andrew Garfield needs to be careful.  He has a set of facial expressions and gestures that he relies on too much.  It’s bad when you’re watching a 17th century priest and being reminded every so often that this guy played Spider-man.  Garfield needs to broaden his repertoire.

And you’ve got to admire Liam Neeson.  His whole career he’s gone from cheesy action flicks to prestige dramas with seeming ease.  He approaches every role with the same seriousness and respect.  Not every actor can do that.

The Japanese performers mostly give performances that are reminiscent of Kurosawa films.  Yosuke Kubozuka who play Kichijiro, the guide who brings the priests into Japan and connects them with the Christians in the village, in particular seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune in Rashoman.  It’s an interesting contrast that jars at first but later on you see that it works.

Most of the time films about ideas are somewhat bloodless, appealing solely to the mind.  Silence appeals to both the mind and the heart and really shows how faith can be an emotional bulwark.  But of course when it is challenged and weakened and eventually defeated that can be devastating.

Elle

Paul Verhoeven always adds a satiric element to his films which to me frequently feels tacked on or even forced.  The propaganda spots in Starship Troopers or the little league baseball coach bringing his team along to a jewelry heist during a police strike in Robocop are examples of this.  To me they jar too much in action films which is mostly what Verhoeven makes.  He tries to have it both ways: to make a commercially viable movie and one that is edgy at the same time.  But frankly, Verhoeven isn’t talented enough to pull it off.

Anyway, Elle opens up just as Michelle Leblanc’s, played by Isabelle Huppert, rapist is finishing up.  She’s lying flat on the floor amidst some broken bric-a-brac with torn clothes and a black eye.  After a few moments, she gets herself together, cleans up and tries to go about her business.  Michelle is the head of a video game publisher which she rules with an iron fist.  The company specializes in graphically violent games with disturbing images.  This doesn’t seem to bother her even after the rape.

At first she has the idea that the rapist works there since she has a lot of people who resent her.  She uses her determination and resources to hunt for the man.  The whole thing turns into something of a game that she surprisingly finds intriguing and gradually her motives for finding him become somewhat convoluted.

Huppert’s performance is fine but I don’t think it’s the triumph that others are saying it is.  It’s very understated and French.  This is a French language film by the way.  You have sympathy for her as you would any rape victim but she’s not a very likeable character.  Huppert straddles that line well enough.

I can’t even give Verhoeven the satisfaction of being offended by this movie.  It’s too incompetently put together for that.  The rape is only the most terrible thing of a plethora of terrible things happening here.  Michelle’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband; when she was nine years old, her father went on a killing spree which he may have involved her in; her son’s girlfriend has a baby which obviously isn’t his and the list goes on.  These things rain down on you one after the other with stupefying regularity.  There are about five plots crammed into two hours and eleven minutes and it still manages to drag because it doesn’t build to any kind of climax.  The most terrible thing opens the film.

I suppose the point of this is that circumstances get convoluted and motives get confused.  There’s a banality to that first scene of Michelle sweeping up after the rapist leaves that underlines this theme.  Life goes on no matter what happens and somebody has to clean up.  I guess this is true.  But without giving anything away, I don’t think her actions afterward are realistic.

Elle may be a meditation on the complicated nature of human motivation but it feels like the case of a lawyer defending a rapist.

And it is also a mess of a movie.

A Monster Calls

Coner, played by Lewis MacDougall, is a young boy who has a large and growing number of problems.  Chief among them is the fact that his Mum, played by Felicity Jones is battling cancer.  He’s also getting beat up regularly at school by a bully.  Then his unpleasant Grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver comes and takes over the house and the care of Mum, eventually moving him to her impeccable and sterile home when Mum goes into the hospital.

The boy reacts to all this by retreating into his head, relying on fantasies to get him through the day.  He needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it and refuses it when it’s offered.  It comes anyway in the form of a tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson that visits him in the middle of the night, just as the clock turns from 12:06 to 12:07.  The monster gives him a bit of psychotherapy and some insight into the complex nature of human emotions, aiding him in the maturing process, as monsters do.

It’s a pretty film, dark with muted colors and seamless special effects.  The monster tells three stories, the first two are done in animated sequences that are appropriately impressionistic.  The performances are fine with Felicity Jones’s standing out the most but the kid, Lewis MacDougall does a really good job as well.

But when it comes down to it A Monster Calls is a very manipulative film.  Just the subject matter of a young child losing his mother is going to evoke rivers of tears.  There is no subtlety or ambiguity about the theme; it’s all laid out in the monster’s speeches and in his transparent stories.  And this is ironic because the theme is that people are complicated and nuanced and are capable of being both good and bad.

As pretty as the film is there is no need to see it in a theater.  Wait for the DVD and then put it on when you need a good cry.

Hidden Figures

In the field of astronomy the use of human computers, people who would power through the mathematical calculations of a particular problem, was routine since the eighteenth century.  A century later, women began to fill these roles.  Back then this was as far as they could advance even though several of them made significant contributions.  Their male bosses almost always took the credit.

When NASA, in the wake of the Soviets launching Sputnik, was tasked with getting a man into space they continued the practice.  Many of the women they used were African American.  Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is the story of three such women.

Katherine Goble/Johnson (she gets married during the story,) played by Taraji P. Henson is the main focus.  From an early age she shows signs of being a prodigy in math, especially geometry.  This gets her the job at NASA.  When it starts taking too long to get the new IBM mainframe computers online, NASA director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner (who is actually a composite of several figures at NASA at the time) desperately needs a human computer to check the math of the engineers on his team.  Because of her facility with geometry, Katherine is recruited for the position and quickly becomes indispensable, despite the reluctance of the team to accept her.  Henson does a great job of depicting a woman, perfectly aware of her precarious position among the white men on her team but who is nonetheless determined to succeed.  When Harrison demands to know why she is away from her desk for forty minutes a day, she angrily informs him that there is no colored women’s bathroom in the building and that she has to walk a half mile to use one.  She also lets out her resentment on a number of other things as well, including a small coffee pot labeled “colored” that showed up on the morning after she got herself a cup from the communal urn.  It’s a scene with a lot of dramatic fireworks and Henson handles it perfectly.

Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan as a slightly older and more responsible woman, acting as the supervisor of the pool of computers but not getting the title or the pay.  Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is the youngest and has the hardest time keeping her mouth shut in the face of white prejudice.  But she’s smart and ambitious.  She wants to be an engineer and she doggedly pursues the dream despite the obstacles NASA and state of Virginia put in her way.  This is Monae’s second great movie performance this year; the first being in Moonlight.

All three of these women push the system and make it give them the opportunities that they deserve.  They take their cues from the civil rights struggle going on around them and speak up about the unfairness and indignity that makes up their lives.  The film is very good at showing these with plenty of shots of frowning faces staring at the three main characters.

Hidden Figures is a very traditional presentation of the classic underdog overcoming great odds story, a story we never tire of.  Director Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, doesn’t give us any cinematic tricks or narrative devices.  This story doesn’t need any.  The filmmakers just get out of the way and let it unfold.

After watching this and doing a little research in the topic, I can’t help but think about all the people throughout history who could have contributed so much to society but couldn’t because of their gender or their ethnicity.  What a terrible waste.

Lion

Five year old Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar, is separated from his mother and siblings when he takes shelter in a decommissioned train that travels over 1200 miles to Calcutta.  This is devastating since they are desperately poor and there is no way to be reunited unless they are very lucky.  Saroo cannot remember the proper name of his town and therefore cannot tell people where he’s from.  He survives as best he can until he lands in an orphanage and is finally adopted by John and Sue Brierly, an Australian couple played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman.  There he is raised in a loving middle class home.

But when he grows up, Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, becomes obsessed with what his birth mother must have gone through.  Looking at the luxury he enjoys every day, he feels guilty about the family he left behind in squalor.  He uses Google Earth and his spotty memories to try and find his home town.  But it takes a long time and his obsession costs him his job, his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara and almost his relationship to his adoptive parents.

The first half of the film is really good.  Sunny Pawar is a natural at playing a smart kid who has good instincts when it comes to steering around the more awful aspects of surviving on the streets of Calcutta in the 1980’s.  The city’s homeless ghettoes are depicted brilliantly with fast cuts and moving cameras.  The colors are muted and dingy.  You are really concerned for this spunky kid as he moves from one Dickensian situation to another.

In the second half, however, the pace slows down as the film becomes mopey.  I appreciate his dilemma here but I don’t understand why refuses all help with his search and I knew his parents would support him and not think he was ungrateful.  Why didn’t he?  This is a true story but that didn’t ring true.  There must have been something that the filmmakers left out.

In any case all that angst really caused the pace to drag in the second half of the film.  The ending, once he gets to India is real tearjerker so bring some tissues but boy is it a slog getting there.

Lion is worth seeing and I guess part of the profits go helping orphans in India, which is as good a cause as I can think of.

La La Land

It would be tempting to write that La La Land is an attempt to revive the musical as a thing in Hollywood.  But I think that would be a mistake.  It is only being released in art house theaters so I doubt that it will do the box office it needs to revive a moribund genre.  The other extreme would be to label it as a stunt, a trick to drum up sales and attention from the Academy.  Somewhere in there is the truth.

Mia, played by Emma Stone is an aspiring actress whose day job is as a barista in a coffee shop on a movie lot.  This allows her to go on auditions during breaks and lunches.  It is a long and often humiliating process but she’s determined to be a movie star like in her favorite old movies.  Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling is a pianist, working multiple gigs to get by and to save money to open a jazz club where he can play the pure improvisational jazz he loves but which is out of fashion.  They run into each other several times and after a rocky start they begin a relationship.

Can these two crazy kids make it in a cold indifferent world?

The film starts out as the kind of musical set in a world where people just break into fully orchestrated songs every once in a while.   The beginning of the film is a pretty inventive dance routine with people stuck in a traffic jam, getting out and dancing around and on top of their cars.  These were professional dancers and singers.  Alas, that is the last time we hear from them.

First of all the songs are not very memorable.  They are clumped together, with long stretches in the middle of no music.  You can almost forget it’s a musical.  And many of the songs that are there feel tacked on.  They aren’t integrated into the plot very well.  It’s like, “We’re making a musical; here’s a song!”

But the biggest flaw is that the two leads can’t sing and are only marginal dancers.  This really surprised me in the case of Gosling who I understand was a Mouseketeer when he was a kid.  I thought they were trained to sing and dance from an early age.  But his singing voice is thin and consistently off key and his dancing is slow and laborious as if he has to think about every move he’s making.  And it’s the same with Emma Stone.  As I’ve said before: there are people in this world who can sing, dance and act.  If you’re making a musical why not cast them?  I know the studios often want established stars in the leads, but you can dub in a real singer’s voice or at least use auto-tune.

There’s a problem with the tone of the film.  The musical part simply isn’t good enough to work, but the plot is so simple and straightforward—there are hardly any twists—that it wouldn’t work as a regular story.  I kind of like the theme that chasing your dreams is a wonderful thing but there are sacrifices and compromises that have to be made while doing it.  But the filmmakers can’t decide if they want to make A Star is Born or an Andy Hardy movie.

Part of the problem is a lack of expertise.  Back in the thirties, forties and fifties when it seemed every other movie was a musical, there were battalions of stars in Hollywood who could pull off all three phases.  There were also plenty of songwriters, choreographers, and directors who knew the genre intimately and making a musical was a matter of making a few phone calls.  Nowadays the process has to be reverse engineered and the results are hit and miss.

La La Land is a miss and definitely a stunt.


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