20th Century Women

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Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by:  Mike Mills

Directed by: Mike Mills

Fun seems like a clumsy word to describe a film trading in themes such as female empowerment and disaffected youth. But let’s call it what it is; 20th Century Women IS fun. Enlightening, entertaining, satisfying, significant — all the above. It celebrates maturity and individuality with a blitheness that is completely disarming. Therapeutic, even.

Mike Mills’ Oscar-nominated, original screenplay explores the lives of three women living in sunny 1970s SoCal. Former President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech serves as a tone-setter in this beguiling but often dark dramatic comedy starring Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, a boarding house landlord who enlists two of her tenants to help raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann’s third feature film credit) during a period of sweeping social and political change.

Dorothea is divorced when she gives birth to Jamie at the age of 40. Coming-of-age story is mostly preoccupied with the evolution of this non-traditional mother-son dynamic, in which a substantial age gap presents many a unique challenge as Jamie starts coming into his own. But the film also uses its two other free-spirited principals in Greta Gerwig‘s photographer Abbie and Elle Fanning‘s girl-next-door Julie to stake out greater thematic territory, including gender politics, burgeoning sexuality and personal responsibility — although invariably each subplot circles back to the family dynamic and the challenges of parenthood.

Abbie finds Gerwig in her element, a character with all the hipster affectations and quirks we have come to expect of an actor who’s very much a hipster at heart. Abbie’s journey through the story mines some of the greatest emotional depths, what with her having survived cervical cancer but being told by doctors she can’t have children. Contrast her against Julie, for whom possibilities are almost too endless. She’s a leaf on the breeze, drifting between her own home and Jamie’s bedroom where she frequently spends the night to get away from her psychologist mother who is convinced her daughter’s behavior is diagnosable. Meanwhile Jamie finds himself firmly locked into the Friend Zone.

Billy Crudup also stars as Dorothea’s handyman, playing a role that similarly subverts expectations as a potential father-figure for Jamie. But his influence is frequently subdued by Dorothea who argues Jamie doesn’t need a male role model. That’s why she tapped the girls for their help. (Speaking of Crudup — how Almost Famous is his ’70s ‘stache in this movie?) Her would-be suitor isn’t on an island though; William is also in constant search of that thing that will give his life meaning.

Mills outfits a compelling story with an authentic, nostalgic retro flare. Black-and-white Polaroids occasionally punctuate the frame, convincingly meshing Bening’s ambassador for independent women with examples of actual people living the real thing; the use of soft color and lighting creates a visual collage of a bygone era rich in period detail. The soundtrack is an experimental mix of the California sound and punk-rock bands fighting back against the establishment. The harmony that is created out of all these elements is what is going to earn Mills a rightful spot amongst the Cameron Crowes and Richard Linklaters of the industry.

Scrapbook-like flourishes also downplay the weight of the material without ever distracting from or trivializing it. 20th Century Women is more often than not an upbeat adventure but don’t let all the conviviality trick you into thinking the movie takes its material lightly. This is a movie that wants to erase the word taboo from the dictionary. Bening fearlessly steers us through the rough waters of belated parenthood and single motherhood. Performances are uniformly outstanding, but she’s the rock, the rock her son so desperately needs, especially in these confusing times.

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4-5Recommendation: Refreshingly forward-thinking movie eschews traditional gender roles and provides an incredible showcase for Annette Bening’s considerable talents. I want to say all these fancy things about this movie, but what I need to emphasize is just how thoroughly enjoyable it all is. I really loved this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Almost Famous (2000)

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As Will Smith notes in Independence Day, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. And while I knew, deep down, there would not be any fat lady singing to indicate this feature had truly ended, I also knew there was no way I could stop doing these posts. It’s the longest-running feature on the blog! Fortunately I have, in my estimation, something kind of important to talk about to jumpstart the conversation about films from years past. And it is actually one I am lifting from this Top That! list I had posted a little while ago, which you can check out here. Okay. I think that’s enough links for one intro.

Today’s food for thought: Almost Famous.

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Following Stillwater since: September 22, 2000

[Netflix]

Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it really does make sense. Rock stars are cool and rock journalists are . . . not. I wonder what that says about film critics, about those who try hard to be included in the spotlight but never will — doomed to remain tantalizingly on the fading edge of the spotlight while trying their damnedest to understand that which they are covering for their stories in an effort to perhaps better understand themselves.

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s turn-of-the-century (millennium, actually) film about a young aspiring journalist who stumbles into the industry only to haphazardly fall back out of it after following a fictitious rock band around the U.S. in an attempt to get his first cover story published, Crowe was confessing several things.

First, the obvious (and quite cliché): fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Patrick Fugit, billed as William Miller but clearly miming Cameron Crowe at age 15 when he himself was contributing articles to Rolling Stone magazine while still attending high school, learns this the hard way. When a rock critic he greatly admires sends him on his first professional assignment to cover headliner Black Sabbath, William inadvertently gets swept up in the experiences — many thrilling and others not so much — shared by the members of Stillwater with whom he forms a bond during their 1973 American tour.

Second, if Almost Famous was even close to an accurate rendering of some of his experiences, then writing about rock’n roll was the gig to get, despite bitterness frothing in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cautionary monologues bookending William’s adventure. “Don’t befriend the bands you meet . . . ” (whoops); “You will never be as cool as a rock’n roll celebrity. People like us, we’re not cool.” If the relationship between Crowe and Rolling Stone taught him anything, it’s how to write a great screenplay. Perhaps the transition into writing movies was less a stepping stone as it was inevitable, the precursor to actually being cool.

And of tertiary importance: if you were a die-hard rock fan, the 70s must have been a rough ride. Band leaders Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) take center stage in representing Stillwater on and off the tour bus, naturally, as the two lead guitarists. The pair exhibit varying levels of enthusiasm over having a journalist along for their tour as they have serious concerns about how their image may be affected when William (a.k.a. “the enemy”) publishes his story. Struggling to maintain relevance in an era of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and Dancing Queens the members are keen on steering William in the direction they wanted his writing to take them, which is to say, towards the limelight of bigger stages.

Almost Famous is uncanny in many ways but it truly excels in creating tension between personal and professional goal-setting. New band managers entering the fold add to Stillwater’s misery; an air of distrust and uncertainty surrounding the wide-eyed journalist’s intentions thickens as time passes. Then toss Stillwater groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, iconic) into the mix as Russell’s ex and the first to take an interest in William at the Black Sabbath concert, and suddenly the lives of rock journalist and professional rock band don’t seem so incongruous. It’s the warning Hoffman’s Lester Bangs was providing all along.

Crowe may have tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70s music scene, but he also struck a deeper chord. This was something of a personal journey for him and it would be a mistake to think, despite how good Patrick Fugit is — hell, how good any of the members of this sprawling ensemble are — Almost Famous served primarily as an actor’s showcase. This learning experience is tinged with pain, nostalgia, envy, regret, sorrow, elation. The cast sublimely navigate these emotions in a story that begs to be revisited time and again. For all of these reasons and more, Crowe’s fourth directorial effort has been rightfully regarded as a classic.

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4-5Recommendation: An almost perfect film experience, watch Almost Famous for the nostalgia, for the music (there are 50 credited songs used here), for the performances, for the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (who was sick the entire time), for the plane scene, for Penny Lane — for all of it. If Almost Famous doesn’t appeal, music dramas are clearly not your cup of tea. And I guess, that’s cool too . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: A literal coming-of-age story: Patrick Fugit’s voice apparently broke (deepened) during the making of Almost Famous.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com