Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Toni Erdmann"

                                  ☆☆☆½                               

It's easy to understand why Hollywood has already announced that it will remake Toni Erdmann with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.  Here's the much-sought-after one-sentence "logline" for the movie:

An aging hippy father shocks his uptight, successful executive daughter by paying her an unannounced visit, fooling her friends and co-workers into thinking he's a high-end "life coach" while teaching her that the greatest lesson life has to offer is how to be yourself.

That's the movie Hollywood wants to make, and somewhere within its long, strange, meandering running time of nearly three hours, that movie could be buried deep within Toni Erdmann.  Then again, it might not, it's really impossible to say.

The original, German version of Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, is not like Hollywood movies.  It's not really like most movies at all, though the one it comes closest to resembling is Sofia Coppola's luminous Lost in Translation, which has the thinnest of plots grafted on to moments of observation and insight.

If Toni Erdmann feels so often (and it does) like it is going nowhere and isn't quite sure how to get there, the measure of its success comes as it begins winding down, when the movie shocks you by making you realize just how much you have come to know its carefully created, but oddly aloof, set of characters.  Several of them come together buck-naked in a sleek Romanian apartment, where they're confronted by a massive, hairy cross between Bigfoot and a yak.  If that description sounds out-of-the-norm, wait until you see how the scene plays out -- and how sensical it all seems under the circumstances.

The reason all the characters are naked is that their host, the professionally severe Ines Condradi (Sandra Hüller), has decided that instead of trying so damned hard to make everything right, she's just going to let it all hang out.  It's very unlike Ines to try something so radical, but that's the influence of her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a man who's always been prone to practical jokes and goofy dollar-store costumes, but whose own sense of purpose and self is at a crisis point.

Ines is living in Bucharest, Romania, where she works as a consultant to help oil companies fire redundant employees.  She likes her work, and is good at it, but it's the kind of job that requires her to be Ines the Consultant at all times, and never Ines the Person -- and it's gotten to the point that Ines doesn't know who the latter is anymore.  In a corporate environment dominated by men, she's managed to become dominant, or pretty close to it.  She can see her father's unexpected visit only through her own irritated eyes -- and barely notices when her most important client takes a liking to the man.

Maybe he senses that he can help her professionally, or maybe he's just a crazy old man, but whatever the reason, Winfried stays in town without telling her.  Instead, he adopts a new persona: Toni Erdmann, frazzle-haired, buck-toothed life-coach to the executive jet set.  None of them buy it, but none of them quite know who he is, either.  He's just always kind of ... around.  And Ines doesn't unmask him: What could she say?  "Hey, boss and big new client, this is actually my dad, he's really crazy and I apologize for him?"  She lets him stick around.  And he keeps insinuating himself in her life and work in brazen ways.

The interesting thing I find writing about Toni Erdmann is that trying to piece it all together makes it sound like there's a plot, and I guess there is, you just don't really notice it while it's happening.  There are scenes about Ines's need for sexual control, and about the way she is trying to be a better and less stern kind of boss.  There are scenes in which she and Winfried try to reconcile their estrangement, and others in which she uses him as a strange sort of stage prop during a key meeting.  And then there's one very uncomfortable, but also very funny, scene in which father and daughter essentially crash a Romanian Easter party and Ines sings a karaoke version of "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston.

When it's over, she runs out of the room.  She has performed valiantly and done what her father asked, but now she doesn't want to share the same space with him.  And as so often happens in Toni Erdmann the conflict isn't resolved, the scene doesn't as much finish as simply end.  We're left to sort out our own feelings about what we've just seen.

Even its big climactic scene, in which Winfried dresses up in that huge sasquatch costume and Ines chases him through a park doesn't go for any specific emotion.  Like the rest of the film, it sets up the action and observes the results ... but doesn't try to play them for particular sorts of sentiment.  What you think of the decisions the characters make is largely up to you.  That holds true to the very final shot of Toni Erdmann, which comes after a scene of surprising warmth, compassion and happiness, and then leaves the audience not knowing quite what happened or what it meant.

Toni Erdmann doesn't want to force its own emotions on you.  It is an exercise in watching a sort of modernized cinema verité, in which what happens on the screen is more important than how the filmmakers explain or define it.

Toni Erdmann ends with a scene that makes utterly no attempt to tell you what it's supposed to mean. But everyone who sees it will have the same visceral reaction, and everyone who has that reaction will have the same emotional response.  And that is the real accomplishment of the film -- that after nearly three bewildering hours in which no character behaves (or even misbehaves) quite as we expect, in which the plot never takes us quite where we thought it would go, that after all that, it proves to have been so confident in its handling, so fully aware of its meaning that its final two or three shots combine to make an ending that rivals the muffled-whispers scene in Lost in Translation.

What exactly Ines and Winfried are trying to say to each other, just how much they are willing to be what the other one is hoping they they have become, is left up in the air.  Instead, we see Ines in her half-smile, and no one -- not the audience and not Ines herself -- is entirely certain that that expression means.

Toni Erdmann isn't sure what any of it means, I think.  And that, after two and a half hours or wandering around with its two leading characters, is what makes it work as well as it does.  No, we can't be sure what the meaning is, but we are reasonably confident we know whatever it is that will happen next, because we've gotten to know these characters.  We've even seen them naked.  And you know the old business joke: When you imagine everyone naked, you see all their shortcomings.  They've all got them.  Toni Erdmann takes it one step further: We see everything these characters have to offer, we see their shortcomings ... and we like them anyway.

If that doesn't tell you how deeply a film has met its goal of having you relate to its characters and come to regard them as real, dimensional people, then maybe nothing does.


Viewed Feb. 18, 2017 -- Laemmle NoHo 7

2010

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Favorite Films: "Chariots of Fire"

                                                                               


If you know Chariots of Fire at all, you know its musical score by Vangelis, which transcended the movie and became one of the cultural touchstones of the early 1980s.  And you've probably seen the slow-motion images of the men running on the beach accompanied by that lushly synthesized music, which means you know, at the very least, that it's a movie about running.

But Chariots of Fire is about running only in the way that La La Land is about Hollywood or 2001: A Space Odyssey is about astronauts -- that is, don't mistake the its surface-level subject for its deeper meaning and its emotional core.

Chariots of Fire is a film I hadn't seen in many, many years.  As a teenager it had an outsized influence on me because of the way it regards passion, motivation and drive.  I saw it four or five times in the movie theater, and I don't imagine that its overt themes of religious faith and national identity mattered much to me.  Of its two main characters, I was more drawn to Harold Abrahams, the Jewish aristocrat who runs for reasons he doesn't fully understand.

Of course Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, comprehends that he runs simply because he can, because it is his talent.  But he harbors a lot of bitter resentment about the way Jews are treated in British society, and running becomes a sort of rebellion for him.  As a student at Cambridge University, he's accepted by the ruling class only to a certain extent, and throughout Chariots of Fire, Abrahams has something to prove.  His fire and drive are what drew me in way back then, and what I remembered most about the movie.

The other side to Chariots of Fire seemed, back then, to be the softer, less interesting side: the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the Christian missionary who treated his speed and athleticism as gifs from God, and who committed himself to running even above religion -- but only to a point.  During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where Chariots of Fire reaches its climax, Liddell refused to run a key race because it took place on a Sunday, the holy day.  It becomes a test of and testament to his faith that he steadfastly refuses, even when the Prince of Wales basically commands him to change his mind.

Liddell's stunning adherence to his beliefs is, all these years later, what most captivates me about Chariots of Fire, especially living in a time when religion is used for many reasons, but rarely, it seems, for its primary purpose of enlightenment and praise.  It seems hard to argue that religion has become, to use a popular phrase, weaponized, but Chariots of Fire is a potent reminder of how the faithful can affect the world in less confrontational ways.

Chariots of Fire is a singular sort of cinematic achievement, a movie that can't be replicated, either for its beauty or for its bold and impressive commitment to its central theme of individual achievement to fulfill a greater good.  Every one of the runners in the film -- there are sharply drawn, though lesser, characters than Liddell and Abrahams -- recognizes that the singular glory of winning is less important for the individual than for the identity of England or, really, of the world.  Chariots of Fire was made near the beginning of the now global obsession with sports celebrities, and it finds a great deal to admire about the time when there were ambitions that exceeded individual success. The film frames itself as a mournful elegy to a lost time; it's aware of how much has changed.

That Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture still takes many people by surprise.  It's the opposite of a "Hollywood" film in almost every regard, especially in the stylistic ways director Hugh Hudson tells the story.  Chariots of Fire requires patience and attention throughout, sometimes only alluding to key plot points, or relaying them through lines of dialogue that seem almost off-handed. One of its most important lines is easily overlooked: Liddell, addressing a group of his admirers, asks "Where does the power come from to see the race to its end?" then pauses and answers the question: "From within."

Chariots of Fire doesn't dwell on that moment or even push it particularly hard -- the film anticipates a certain level of intelligence from its audience, and it rewards that intelligence by being tightly structured, and beautifully written and acted.  Charleson and Cross convey such determination, such commitment to their chosen causes -- and to their shared cause of glory for their country -- that they convey the movie's strong sense of grace and dignity effortlessly.

Chariots of Fire continues to impress.  It's a film that deserves rediscovery, one that is more than 35 years old but hasn't aged at all -- even its much-parodied theme song still works beautifully.  Chariots of Fire grows richer with age.  It seems entirely fitting that its own fond and melancholy look back at two men who were filled with the courage of their convictions has turned it, over time, into a film that is defined by its own.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Catching Up: "Captain Fantastic"

                                  ☆☆☆½                               

Instead of celebrating Christmas, the Cash family celebrates the birthday of liberal linguist Noam Chomsky.  The smallest among them, who is about seven years old, reads The Joy of Sex, while the oldest celebrates his 18th birthday by stalking and killing a deer, which becomes their dinner feast.

They live together in the vast and mountainous forests of Washington state, where many years the father and the mother decided to spurn the ways of modern society and raise their family away from the rest of the world.

When Captain Fantastic opens, the family seems more or less happy and well-adjusted under the leadership of their father, Ben, who's played by Viggo Mortensen in a role that is perfect for him.  Mortensen has always seemed like a free spirit, a borderline hippy, the kind of actor and artist who wants to be able to express himself freely in every part of his life.  That's the kind of character Ben is -- but there are some strange things going on, like the military precision he uses on his kids.  They seem less like children than experiments.  And there's the question of what happened to his wife, who is missing.

Her absence, it turns out, is what gets the story going.  After a long and detailed look at the way the Cashes live in the forest, Ben and his son Bo (George MacKay) set out on one of their infrequent excursions to the nearest general store, where Ben makes some money by selling crafts the kids make.  Before they leave, Ben promises to check on the status of the mother, who has been hospitalized after suffering a mental breakdown.  It's worse than that, though -- Ben gets word that his wife has died.

So, the family, after this extended preamble, venture out in their old school bus, which they've named "Steve," and makes a journey to her funeral, which will be held in New Mexico.  Their fish-out-of-water trip makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic, which is as weird, quirky as the family itself.

The best parts of Captain Fantastic -- and there are a lot of them -- play off of our own discomfort with Ben and the choices he has made for his kids.  These are odd and unusual people, and the the movie doesn't hide from its gently leftist ideology that maybe it's them and not us who has got it figured out.

But it's smart enough to offer more than a few hints that the guy may be a genuine crackpot, a less angry but no less dangerous version of Allie Fox from Paul Theroux's great novel The Mosquito Coast.  And really, his liberal hippie ways aren't that far off from a right-wing survivalist nutjob.   Mortensen plays Ben with a much softer, more open-hearted vibe, but Captain Fantastic can never shake the fact that it's not quite as concerned as it should be with the real possibility that he's mentally unhinged, that his kids are incredibly smart but dangerously unaware of the world.  They've had a lifestyle and world-view foisted upon them by a father who claims to encourage free thinking.  Son Bo is so fearful of his father that he hides acceptance letters from leading schools, afraid of what the man will think.

While it has the outlines of a serious and thought-provoking drama, Captain Fantastic largely plays its plot for smiles (like the Chomsky-themed non-Christmas), sometimes even real laughs (like the sex-curious youngsters).  It's a little too light to be really thoughtful, but it's filled with themes that demand an intensity it can't quite achieve.  A scene between Mortensen and Ann Dowd as his mother in law, in particular, just gets going when it ends abruptly, missing an opportunity to push both the wilderness-living radical and his consumerist mother-in-law to places they hadn't thought to wander.

Still, Mortensen and the kids (MacKay gets the most screen time, but they're all terrific) deserve credit for making Captain Fantastic feel real and vibrant, even when it's easy to wish writer-director Matt Ross knew exactly what he thought of his characters and the choices they made.  It lacks the awareness of movies like Wild or Into the Wild, which provided more of an understanding of what drove its characters away from society in the first place.  Captain Fantastic doesn't have the weightiness of those movies, but it does have a weird spirit and a certain joy all its own.



Viewed Feb. 5, 2017 -- VOD

Another Visit to "La La Land"

                                                                               


A few weeks back, when Barack Obama was still the president and a relative sense of sanity still prevailed, there was a general consensus that La La Land was some sort of movie miracle.

Times have changed.  There's been an all-too-predictable pre-Oscar backlash against La La Land, driven by the same kind of backstabbing politics -- the reason we can't have nice things.  There's a constant whisper in the air that La La Land can't really be that good.  So, clever SNL skits aside, it's my cinematic civic duty to tell you something: Yes, La La Land is really that good.

I'm all for the sudden Oscar push for Hidden Figures, because that's a terrific movie with some great performances and a real sense of verve.  It's just, well, La La Land isn't simply better; La La Land is a damn near perfect movie, one whose seeming flaws are in fact its real virtues (that long John Legend song notwithstanding).

Spoiler alert: I'm about to give away some key plot points to La La Land, so if you haven't seen it, just know you're missing one of the finest films that's likely to be made in your lifetime.  Oh, what's that?  You're one of those, "I don't like musicals" people?  OK, fine.  I understand, you don't like the idea of people bursting into song and dance even though you're probably likely to do exactly that when you're alone in the house -- you're just embarrassed by the expression of emotion through something as charming as musicals.  In that case, don't see La La Land -- and skip Christmas, sunsets and giggling babies, too, while you're at it; you, my friend, are not simply a curmudgeon, you're just a mean person.  You have my permission to skip La La Land

But as I watched La La Land for a third time tonight (bypassing the week's January-dregs new releases), some things came floating to mind as effortlessly as Sebastian and Mia in the planetarium.  These are the criticisms I've been hearing recently of La La Land, and my thoughts on them:

The singing is so ... weak.  They needed real singers.
Perhaps you are missing the point of La La Land, which is not, as SNL wants to have us believe, that these are "real people" singing in their real voices.  The movie is about jazz, just as writer-director Damien Chazelle's last film, the astonishing Whiplash, was -- and that jazzy, swingy, aimless feeling needs to suffuse the songs.  Does the opening number lack the impressive voices of, say, a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical?  Yeah.  Making La La Land into a "real" musical, one with "real" actors would have made it impossible to tell the story of struggling people.  They've got "real" singers, by the way -- Emma Stone more than held her own on Broadway in Cabaret, and Gosling started his career as an actor who could sing.  They're all terrific ... and all of them, including the "chorus," are given very specific kinds of ranges.  From its first moments, La La Land makes it clear that it will be a musical that plays the songs on its terms, and does so brilliantly.

There aren't really enough songs to make it a 'real' musical.
The singers aren't as good as they should be, but there aren't enough songs?  That's like Alvy Singer's joke in Annie Hall about the two ladies complaining about the food at a restaurant: It's terrible, says one.  The other agrees: "And such small portions."  The reason we'd like to see more songs in La La Land is because the ones that are there are so good.  And trust me, the more they get into your head the more they stay there.  An original musical (a rare commodity in Hollywood, and increasingly anywhere) starts with songs you've never heard.  To get to know them requires listening to them over and over, and the La La Land soundtrack proves that they are songs that get better with every successive play.  It's a fantastic song score.

Ryan Gosling's character is a total jerk; Emma Stone lacks a strong character.
Yes, Ryan Gosling's character, Sebastian, is self-absorbed, arrogant and difficult to work with.  Perhaps you miss the scene where Keith (John Legend) tells him exactly that.  Sebastian shrugs: "Tell me something I don't know."  The movie's entire story is built on the notion that he and Emma Stone's Mia don't really hit it off, partly because the first time they met (technically the second) he was a complete jerk to her.  The movie isn't about true love, you may have noticed.  It's not about a love-at-first-sight spark.  Sebastian is self-absorbed.  Mia is flailing (though the movie makes it clear she's actually a very good actress).  A guy who can't think of anything but his craft and a girl who thinks, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this" -- those aren't two people who are going to last long together.  La La Land is not about the romantic destiny of two people to be together.  That is not this movie, I feel obligated to say it again, because ...

They could have wound up together if they had just tried harder.
No.  You've misunderstood this easy-to-understand movie, you've applied your own notions of how movies are supposed to portray romance.  The key to understanding La La Land is to look at it a second time knowing what you learn at the end: Mia and Sebastian cannot be together.  If they fall in love and acquiesce to the notions of true romantic love, one of them has to lose.  This seems easy as the film begins -- Mia just needs to become Sebastian's little wife and let him make the money.  But that will only solve one problem.  Sebastian goes out of his way to make Mia attend her audition, the one that changes her life, because he knows that even though it will pull them apart, it will give them each the chance to fulfill their ambitions.  They simply can't do it together, no matter how tempting it might seem.  And that's the emotionally rough part of La La Land, the bit that ties it together with Whiplash: One way or another someone's going to lose.  And it's going to hurt.

What hurts is that 15 minutes in the middle, when the movie slows to a crawl.  They should have cut that part out.
But then they would have cut out the movie's soul.  Mia is a little ahead of Sebastian in worrying that the relationship is doomed, but she thinks there's still hope as long as he gives up the touring.  But he reminds her the touring is what she told him he should do -- his big dream of his own club will just have to wait.  This is the "practical dream."  And this scene, the one at the dinner table in Sebastian's apartment, drives some people loony.  The movie slows down to a crawl.  The fun saps out of the movie.  It's no longer light on its feet, it's gloomy, it's sad, it's serious, it's not romantic.  And that is precisely why it's there.  Lose this scene and nothing makes sense.  Mia gets up to leave not because she's angry at what Sebastian has said, but because that is all there is left to do.  Each has taken the other as far as they can ... well, almost.  If it weren't for that uncomfortable dinner scene, we wouldn't have the tears-down-your-face delightful one of Sebastian driving to the house in front of the library.  That slow, careful scene of troubling emotions is what the movie spins on.  Its pacing is completely different than the rest of the film, and that's exactly as it should be.

OK, fine, I'll accept all of that -- but it's just really OK, it's not great, it's not like those MGM musicals in the 1950s, right? 
No, you're right.  It's better.  Because it has found a way to recreate homages to those films (and most every other significant musical ever made) and still do something important, do something the film stresses needs to be done with every art form -- it pushes cinema forward.  By looking at the beautiful past of moviemaking, it borrows the right language and the right techniques, but still manages to create a film that has much to say about our own lives, about where we are today in the modern world, our desire to see things stay the same and our relentless pushing ahead into an unknown future.  And it does all of that with singing, dancing and beauty.  It's not Singin' in the Rain or American in Paris, sure -- but it belongs with them.

Well, you just like it because you're from L.A.  You know, that liberal bubble, that place that reveres itself to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
I love it -- and I do love it -- because I came here with a dream.  I've fulfilled parts of it, much is still left undone, but I came to L.A. for the same reason anyone comes here ... or goes to New York ... or London ... or Paris ... or gets out of their little town in rural Ohio and moves to Cleveland.  Or even just wishes that one day he or she could do that.  La La Land is about all those people.  It's about the people who came to L.A., specifically, because they had an ambition: they read comic books as kids and now write or direct or star in super-hero movies.  It's about the people who came here because they loved Schwarzenegger movies and wanted to write the best action movie ever.  Or saw Star Wars and wanted to be the next George Lucas.  La La Land is not just about actors and singers -- it's about, as Mia's final song says, "the ones who dream."

That's all of us.

Whether you're just starting out and hope this is the way it goes, or you're wildly successful and remembering how it felt.  Whether you're an enormous failure but like recalling your early moments of optimism, or you're just a middle-aged kind-of-made-it-but-not-quite ... or you're someone who never mustered the courage to do that crazy thing you wanted to do, La La Land makes you feel better about even having tried, about simply having thought of it.

And it's a stark, unexpectedly tough reminder that if you do get it, you're going to have to be giving up something else.

On top of all that, it's the most visually ravishing, most carefully constructed, most satisfying movie released last year -- and 2016 was a year with some honestly remarkable films.  They are all worthy, they are all good.  It's just that La La Land soars above them.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

"20th Century Women"

                                 ☆☆☆☆                                

As 20th Century Women heads toward its eloquent conclusion, the movie pauses its freeform story to focus on a speech Jimmy Carter gave in July 1976.  At the time, they called it the "malaise" speech, but it's become better known by its most important phrase -- the Crisis of Confidence speech.

Dorothea Fields -- whose last name recalls an iconic fictional feminist introduced in the 1970s, Garp's mother Jenny -- has gathered her 15-year-old son, Jamie, and an eclectic group of friends around the television to watch the speech.  They think it will ruin Carter (it did), but Dorothea finds it lovely and meaningful.

It speaks to her because Dorothea, who is played magnificently by Annette Bening in a performance filled with weird quirks and contradictions, has been doubting herself more than a little.  Much like a more rooted, real version of T.S. Garp and Jenny Fields, Dorothea and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, who's superb) they live in a rambling old house that has become a sort of home for wayward souls.

They've got two tenants, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is helping restore the place, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a lonely young woman who leans toward the artistic, even though she's not sure quite why.  Somewhere close by lives Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous but insecure girl who's kind-of-sort-of got a crush on Jamie, though she sleeps with the other boys.

Dorothea has a tendency to invite strangers over to dinner and to smoke too much, but she rarely ventures beyond the confines of the house.  It's a place she took over from some hippies who used it as a house of free spirits, whose unwillingness to conform to bourgeois rules like paying the mortgage on time left it falling apart.  Dorothea is trying to put it back together, but she seems in little rush.  She claims not to identify with its previous occupants but bears more than a little resemblance to them, and lacks a clear vision for the future.  She's not OK with how things are, but, yes, she is.

Constantly, both mother and son refer to her childhood during the Depression, as if that explains everything.  But in fact, Dorothea can't explain anything about herself, and is as surprised as anyone to find herself here, in a run-down mansion outside Santa Barbara, playing mother hen to people who aren't really her family.

After a remarkably foolish peer-pressure experiment lands Jamie in the hospital, Dorothea frets that he's not getting enough guidance.  Unwilling to see their own limitations, she enlists Julie and Abbie for help in raising her son and explaining the world to him.

This being 1979, it's not practical, parental advice they offer, but explorations of sexuality and feminism.  With (almost) no prurient interest at all, Jamie absorbs their input, reading essays by feminist authors, wondering about sex, and taking tentative steps into life beyond childhood.

20th Century Women is as rambling and loosely structured as Dorothea's house, but that proves to be its charm.  It never coalesces into a cohesive narrative, which will likely infuriate or bore some people, but it always demands attention.  As Dorothea comes to realize the inherent folly and heartbreak of asking other people to help raise her own son, she also recognizes just how quickly her son is becoming a man, and how little time she'll have with him.

In its most mundane moments, 20th Century Women seems random, haphazard, more a collection of observations than a fully realized film -- but then it finds its footing, takes off and soars, especially in some beautiful moments that let each character narrate the future arc her (and his) life will take.

With more wit and substance than last year's Everybody Wants Some!! and without that film's near-fetishism for recreating the period, 20th Century Women vividly recalls a time when the whole world lost its confidence even as it barreled toward an unclear but potent future.

Bening finds the messy, anxious, excited heart of a woman who wants to embrace change but has no idea how -- unaware that everyone around her shares the same worries.  Gerwig and Fanning are very good, too, as the young women who build a foundation for Jamie as best they know how (which is not particularly well).  They're joined by Crudup's surprisingly awkward masculinity as the only grown man in a house filed with women he can't help but be attracted to.  But it's Zumann who makes the biggest impression -- no small feat next to Bening -- as Jamie, who instinctively understands the need to be better as a man than he was as a boy.

Writer-director Mike Mills has a lot to reflect on here, no doubt 20th Century Women was as inspired by his own experiences as it was, maybe unintentionally, influenced by John Irving's tale of another boy and his mother.  But it's good, sometimes even great, material, and it carries the ring of truth to it -- hard-won truth, the kind you only get by looking back and remembering the little things you thought you forgot, the crises of confidence you thought you overcame, realizing many years later, they are what became you.



Viewed Jan. 22, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1335

4 / 5

Friday, January 20, 2017

"Split"

                                      ☆☆                                   

Split is fractured.  It begins strongly, then meanders into a muddled mess that seems to have nowhere to go -- until it finally proves that perception wrong.  M. Night Shyamalan knows exactly where he's taking this movie, and whether you like the destination will depend a lot on ...

Well, gosh, I can't say anymore, because for some people -- who frankly probably already know what it is I'm talking about -- that would be cheating.  But to me, the movie is cheating.

The shame is that it begins so well, contains more than a little bit of cinematic style, and features two really compelling performances.

The showier one is James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb, a working-class guy whose therapist (Betty Buckley) has documented 23 distinct personalities.  The movie shows us about five of them, and while none of them are quite as carefully nuanced as Sally Field in Sybil or Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, they're distinct enough that it's a wicked little joy to see McAvoy having such fun in the role.

Less flashy but equally impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three girls who Crumb abducts as the film opens.  Taylor-Joy's character Casey is awkward, withdrawn and unpopular, but the two social butterflies who are held captive with her quickly realize she's got smart survival instincts.

A long, long, long set of flashbacks, which throw Split ever more out of focus, reveal why she's so crafty and so tortured.  It's an unsavory and lurid sort of backstory, presented with cavalier dismissal -- in Split, the painful and cruel reality of child molestation is used as a plot device in service of what appears to be a straightforward thriller.

But Split was not made by the director who turned in compact, satisfying little thrillers like Devil and The Visit.  This is the Shyamalan who is incapable of doing anything without strained foreboding and a kind of stunning sense of self-importance.  His efforts to bring some sort of weighty meaning to Split recall the dull, spiritless "thrills" of his grandest disappointments, like The Village, Signs and, mostly, Unbreakable, where everyone spoke in hushed tones because everything was significant.

Instead of a neat and dastardly thriller in which young women have to escape the clutches of a maniac with 23 personalities -- as if that wouldn't be enough to sustain a movie -- Split builds up some goodwill with its early touches of studied (and actually pretty impressive) Hitchcockian flair only to squander it all on Shyamalan's deep and abiding affection for ... M. Night Shyamalan.

About midway through Split, there's a quick and unusual reference to "The Beast" and the belief that one of Kevin's personalities has of a deeper and more sinister meaning for abducting the girls.  The guy is presented as crazy, but ever so slowly -- and not the good kind of slowly -- this mystical, long-winded mythology is going to be the story and the movie wants to ascribe some huge reason for his behavior and his actions.

The movie has no idea how to establish or sustain its grander notion, though, and resorts to the worst movie crutch of all: extensive exposition through dialogue.  A long scene of impossible dialogue between Kevin and his therapist, who has some unusual notions of multiple personality disorder, is too much for even McAvoy and Buckley, and brings the movie to a grinding halt.

That's about the time when Split breaks away from being like the tight, lean little thrillers Shyamalan's been making and becomes more like the ponderous, dull sort of non-thriller that he blew his reputation on.  Split turns out to have a lot in common with the dreadful Lady in the Water and The Happening (that was the one in which the bad guys were ... trees): It talks and talks and talks when it should be revving up the action. Toward the end, Casey finally confronts Kevin, and just when the movie should be getting spectacularly weird, Kevin stops to explains himself.

Split ends with a head-scratching final scene that would be entirely meaningless on its own, but it finally throws in a last-second coda that Shyamalan thinks is one of his used-to-be-fun "twists," but without which absolutely none of the rest of the movie would make sense.

Not that it makes sense anyway. Split continues Hollywood's obsession with creating movies that have some kind of "connected universe," insisting that movies cannot be enjoyed on their own, they must have some secret hidden meaning in which everything relates to everything else -- as if it turned out the Bates Motel was right off the road Scottie drove to take Madeleine to the Mission, which was where Roger O. Thornhill had gotten married to his first wife.

If all of that sounds like gibberish to you, that's because it is -- and that, it turns out, is exactly what Split is, too.



Viewed Jan. 20, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1900

2 / 5

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Fences"

                                 ☆☆☆                                  


For a movie as pedigreed and noble as Fences, it's an awfully talky and ultimately muddled film that discovers, uncomfortably, what a wide gulf there is between what affects us on stage and what moves us on screen.

It's based on August Wilson's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and whatever it was that worked so well when performed live does not have the same impact when filmed for an audience.  Filled with long, florid monologues and grand themes of morals and ethics, Fences is admirable in every possible way, just not particularly compelling.

It takes place almost entirely within the backyard and two of the rooms of the Philadelphia home of Troy Maxson, mostly in 1957.  Anchored by two remarkable performances by Denzel Washington (who also directs) and Viola Davis, Fences seethes with anger for forgotten people -- not just for African-Americans, but for everyone like Troy, who has worked so hard to accomplish so little that he's become bitter at how much he was not allowed to do.

For that reason, Fences should feel uncommonly timely despite its setting of 60 years ago, but Washington is working with a script that Wilson finished in 2005, before he died, and seems almost afraid to interpret the words and actions further.

Troy works hard as a garbage man to support his second wife, Rose, and their high-school-aged son, Cory, and they don't live flamboyantly.  Largely due to her careful management of the house, they life reasonably well, though, despite having much turmoil under a peaceful surface.  Troy has an older son from his first marriage, and was able to buy the house not because of his meager salary but because his mentally disabled brother Gabe was badly injured in World War II and received a small payout from the government.

But Troy has another shame, too, one that will test the limits of his wife's saintlike patience and break open the chasm that looms between him and his son.  As he ruminates on his life and what he has been denied, Troy reminisces about his almost-career as a baseball player.  Troy believes prejudice, not skill, prevented him from playing.

Over and over, he reflects on baseball, and some of his dialogue could be the work of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams -- baseball is metaphor, a life lesson, a dream and an unkept promise all in one, and if it sounded over the top when James Earl Jones said it, it's that much more labored here.  (It's no surprise that Jones himself played Troy in the original Broadway production in 1987, while Dreams was released two years later.)

Despite the enormous work of its cast and director, Fences remains as fixed to its limited world as the baseball that Troy hangs from a tree in the yard.  There are occasional efforts to open up the action, but they seem half-hearted and timid -- this is a play through and through.

It's also a movie that asks a lot of the audience; it is defiantly unwilling to present Troy in a sympathetic light, and spends almost all of its time in the realm of metaphor, unwilling to say quite exactly what it means.  It's meant to spark post-show conversation, perhaps, but comes across as wavering and unresolved.  Is Troy a good man who went bad?  Is his life to blame, are his problems truly caused by circumstance -- or does his pivotal act and revelation prove that he is unrelievedly selfish and cowardly? Fences doesn't want to tell us, and Washington doesn't want to offer any sort of interpretation, which is exactly what it would have needed to to transcend its roots.

What Fences does have is a strong central performance by Washington; intense, internalized, he projects a combination of fierce strength and utter disillusionment.  He's affecting.  Even better is Viola Davis in one of the year's most compelling performances.  She isn't long-suffering, she is proud to be who she is, she is confident and resilient, and she understands the significance of her own modest achievements.  When the rug is pulled out from under her in the key scene of Fences, it's clear that Davis has found the soul of the character.  She's the reason to see Fences, and she's almost enough.

It's a frustrating movie, one that contains much to like -- but not quite enough.  The ambiguity at its core has made the play into a classic, but it's the very thing that keeps the film swinging, but not quite making, the Fences of its title.


Viewed Jan. 8, 2016 -- DVD


3/5