Daily Archives: January 30, 2017

Review: 20th Century Women

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Mike Mills, in his third film, has become an even stronger writer-director. I thought his last film, Beginners, had a lot of promise, and it is paying off in 20th Century Women. When I read over my review of Beginners (I hardly ever remember movies any more, just whether I like them) I see that the main character had an eccentric mother. Apparently this is autobiographical. In Beginners it was about his father, but 20th Century Women is about mothers.

Set in Santa Barbara in 1979 (my time period) 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has the normal concerns, but also some very bizarre ones. His best friend is a girl two years older than him (Elle Fanning) that will have sleepovers but not have sex with him (though she has sex with many other guys). His mother, Annette Bening, was a working woman even back in the Depression, and has a curious view of life. She’s an extremely permissive parent, sticking up for Jamie when he misses too much school. She fears she is knowing him less every day, and enlists Fanning and a boarder, Bohemian photographer Greta Gerwig, to help raise him.

There is a male presence in the house, another boarder who is remodeling the house (a precise metaphor for the constant state of unfixedness in the family), Billy Crudup. But he’s a man-child, who has plenty of affairs but doesn’t know how to relate to women. Bening has to teach him how to ask a woman to dance.

It’s these five characters who exist in a little world. There’s a lot of Wes Anderson in this film–he also makes films about unconventional families and Mills adds Andersonian touches such as title cards telling us when characters were born and focusing on the books they are reading. There’s also a great emphasis on music–mostly the Talking Heads (Zumann is beaten for liking them, defamed as an “art fag”) and other punk groups of the period.

Motherhood, and its effects on a child, is the spine of the film. Bening has her own influence on Zumann, even if she never seems to get mad at him no matter what he does (a late scene has her participating in a dangerous stunt with him that reminded me of the end of The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller ride on the back of a truck), but there are other kinds of mothers. Gerwig, a lonely person who looks for solace in art and music, is recovering from cervical cancer, caused by her mother taking a fertility drug. Fanning, who at seventeen is far too intense for that age, is the daughter of a therapist who includes her in teen group therapy, a huge ethical lapse that drives them apart (it is well known that the children of mental health professionals are crazier than most).

All the performances are fine, but it’s Bening’s show. She should have been nominated for an Oscar, as her line readings and facial expressions are thrillingly authentic. She wears no makeup, wears Birkenstocks and smokes Salems (there is more smoking in this film than any I can recall that doesn’t star Humphrey Bogart) and seems to have given up on happiness, which drives Zumann crazy. But Gerwig, one of America’s more interesting actresses these days, and Fanning are almost as good.

Mills is a director to watch. 20th Century Women was one of the best of 2016.

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Review: Bright Lights Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (TV) (2016)

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When a documentary on the famed mother/daughter combination called ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ was in the works last year, it already promised to be a notable event.

Reynolds and then Fisher both had been part of pop culture for over 60 years and had rather similar careers; both had one film that defined their lives, both were multi-talented enough that when their film careers stalled they were able to successfully branch out into other areas (Fisher with screenwriting, Reynolds on Broadway and cabaret) and both had messy private lives that often played out in public

But when they tragically died almost simultaneously late last year, this documentary carried extra weight and poignancy to it and its release was brought forward due to public interest.

The documentary isn’t a traditional biography on Reynolds & Fisher; it’s more a potted history of them mixed with fly-on-the-wall observations of their lives interspersed with old home movies. Also, while this documentary is portrayed as a joint Reynolds/Fisher take, it really is largely from Fisher’s point of view and is mainly her story and her perspectives on her mother and life in general.

As a take on Carrie Fisher’s life, the overall impression one gets is that she was finally at peace with herself and the life she had lived. She was at peace with the tumult of her childhood when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor which became a huge international story. While it isn’t directly said, clearly the whole saga had a major impact on her psyche for decades; how could it not?

We see Carrie at peace with her relationship with Debbie, which had at times been on rocky ground in previous decades. We see them live next door to each other with both of them bantering and conversing like they’re an older version of the mother/daughter from The Gilmore Girls.

Also, we see Carrie at peace in her relationship with her father Eddie Fisher. In perhaps the most poignant segment of the documentary, we see Carrie taking care of Eddie only months before his death in 2010. To see Eddie – once one of the most popular singers in America – sickly and incapacitated sharing tender moments with a daughter who’d he had a difficult relationship with, is genuinely moving.

And we see Carrie at peace with her eternal fame from the Star Wars franchise. We see her at a fan convention (something she only took to late in life) signing autographs and conversing with people of all ages who see her as a heroic figure. Fame overwhelmed her when it hit in the late 70s (especially as she had no desire to be an actress) but as she discusses after the convention she clearly has come to terms with how much her role and performance have meant to others.

A great asset of the documentary is the plethora of home movie footage it shows of Reynolds/Fisher in the early years right down to Carrie at The Great Wall Of China in the 1980s. The most significant home movie footage from a Reynolds cabaret show in the early 1970s where a reluctant Carrie is brought on to stage to impressively sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. To then see Reynolds in the present day get emotional at how Carrie never wanted to sing publicly is touching.

As for Reynolds, we get to see her perform in the present day in her one-woman shows. It’s rather sad in one way as she clearly struggles at times (her health problems are a constant theme throughout the documentary) but the admiring older audience at the shows don’t seem to mind and are glad that she’s still performing after so many decades.

As a documentary, ‘Bright Lights’ is rather frustrating at times. It jumps about in time constantly and feels a bit messy, although the closing stages surrounding Debbie receiving a SAG Lifetime Achievement award helps give it focus. Also, one feels that the documentary might’ve had better structure and purpose if the documentary had been told from the perspective of Carrie’s brother Todd (who does provide observation & narration on occasion).

But perhaps ‘Bright Lights’ is better served by its rather messy style than being a more traditional style as it isn’t about providing a comprehensive analysis of Debbie & Carrie’s lives, but capturing what made them tick and observing the chaos and contradictions they lived through. And especially with Carrie, it does seem to capture her essence as a personality and what made her so appealing to the public during her life.

Overall, ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ is a worthy celebration of two remarkable lives.