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


4 / 5

Friday, January 20, 2017



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


2 / 5

Wednesday, January 11, 2017



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