20th Century Women & The Sense of an Ending

20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Zumann, Gerwig, Bening, Fanning, l to r

Pity the poor teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in this film written and directed by Mike Mills and set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s (trailer). He not only has a protective, chain-smoking single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening), but she recruits his girl friend, one word, not two (Elle Fanning) and her boarder (Greta Gerwig) to help look out for him, to teach him “how to be a good man.”

Three moms could be a bit much, and is, but he is graceful under pressure, even when Gerwig inducts him into feminist thinking with Our Bodies, Our Selves. The resident handyman (Billy Crudup) could be a decent masculine role model, but he and Jamie just don’t connect.

The movie has a lot of cultural references to the 70s that may make you laugh or shake your head. A group of Dorothea’s friends sit around to listen to Jimmy Carter’s preachy bummer of a speech about the “crisis of confidence” among Americans and the need to get past rampant consumerism. This impolitic speech was reviled at the time (one of the characters says, “He is so f—–”)—and now sounds distressingly prescient.

The acting is A+, and “What is so special about Dorothea (and every character in the film) is that they aren’t ‘quirky’ in an annoying, independent film way,” says Sheila O’Malley for Rogerebert.com. They’re real people.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 88%; audiences: 75%.

The Sense of an Ending

Sense of an Ending

Rampling, Broadbent

Scriptwriter Nick Payne transformed Julian Barnes’s prize-winning novel into this movie (trailer) directed by Ritesh Batra about a self-absorbed Londoner and his growing obsession with a woman from his distant past. It appears he’d much rather be living there, with the frisson of youth and the sixties—than in his current divorced, not especially accomplished, late-middle-age state.

Tony Webster (played superbly by James Broadbent) becomes a voyeuristic observer of the life that might have been. He receives an unexpected letter from his former girlfriend’s mother telling him she’s bequeathed him the diary of his youthful best friend—the best friend who stole the girlfriend from him.

It’s an odd thing, but he becomes determined to get that diary, while the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) is determined he not have it. The conflict sparks many nostalgic reminiscences about those days. It transpires that events were shatteringly different from how he has understood them all along.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (Harriet Walter, who is in everything lately) is onto him, and his daughter (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) is about to yank him back into the present by producing a grandchild.

Again, the cast is terrific, even if Webster himself is annoyingly oblivious, and the source material is strong. I have not read the book, but apparently Julian Barnes told the filmmakers not to be constrained by his text: “Throw the book against the wall,” he said. The critics seem to think they followed that advice rather too well.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 70%; audiences: 59%.

Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine, DenmarkThis multiply-honored Danish-German movie from Martin Zandvliet (trailer) also could have been titled Land of Mines, since it is based on Denmark’s real post-World War II program that used POWs to clear the mines the Germans laid up and down the Danes’ western seacoast. Apparently, someone in Hitler’s command believed the Allied invasion might take place there, and when the war was over, the mines had to go.

In real life, we’re told, some 2,000 prisoners were given the task of clearing the beaches of 1.5 million mines—a task New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott terms “intuitively fair and obviously cruel.” About half of these former soldiers, many of whom were mere teenagers, died or were seriously injured in the process.

This movie, which has subtitles, is about 14 such prisoners and not easy to watch. Lacking the Hollywood cues that typically signal when disaster’s coming and who will be next to die, every moment of training, every defusing of a mine, every run on the beach is tension-filled. Hardass Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller) doesn’t think these prisoners should get by with a thing, and he works them hard. The story, then, is about how he gradually comes to see them as the young boys they are.

The Danes are justly praised for saving the vast majority of their Jews in World War II, despite the country’s occupation by the German army, but this almost forgotten episode shows a darker side. Not everyone is capable of compassion or of easy forgiveness. And where should the Sergeant’s loyalties lie? With his countrymen (and the rest of humanity) who have suffered at the hands of the Nazis or with the boys now under his absolute command?

The boys condemned to this excruciating duty, with its meager diet and the receding possibility they will ever return home, are portrayed by a fourteen young actors—including a pair of twins—who are utterly believable. Is their deadly task necessity or punishment? How much bravery is required just to persevere?

A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine was shot on location on the Danish coast. A real mine—one missed by the young searchers more than 70 years ago—was discovered during filming.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating 89%; audiences 89%.

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

Rosamund Pike & David Oyelowo

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” So said Ruth in the Old Testament and English clerical worker Ruth Williams lived them, when her beloved asked her to marry him. This beautifully done film about conflicting loyalties in the midst of implacable racism and power politics (trailer) was directed by Amma Assante and written by Guy Hibbert, based on the true story of Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland.

It takes place just after World War II, and the marriage was complicated. He was an African prince, and though she would become Queen of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), they were the only people who believed in the strength and staying power of their love. Botswana is the gentle landlocked nation north of South Africa, made vividly famous by Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. But when Ruth and Seretse traveled there from England, where he’d been studying, tensions were high. Some—notably his uncle and regent—opposed his marrying a white woman. Some—notably the British overseers of the protectorate—feared a reaction by the emergent apartheid government to the South. Opposition by those racist leaders would threaten the U.K.’s revenues from the South African diamond and gold mines. Promises were broken, but not Seretse and Ruth’s promises to each other.

The intransigence and overweening self-interest of colonial governments is all too predictable, yet there are voices in favor of Bechuanaland’s right to self-determination. Will they be loud enough? Will the Africans ever accept an English queen? Can Seretse secure his people’s future? My ignorance of African politics over a half-century ago meant the movie held surprises, even though the plot hews closely to real events.

David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama and helped produce the film, with Rosamund Pike as Ruth—quite a change from her portrayal as Gone Girl’s manipulative Amy. She can convey so much with just a slight quivering of the chin. Laura Carmichael is her loving sister, and Jack Davenport, their principal British antagonist.

This is quite a lovely film, with top-notch acting and beautiful scenery, bound up by ties of love between people and peoples.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 82%.

Score

Score, musicThe heart of many a memorable motion picture is the musical score that presages, enhances, and evokes emotions as the story unfolds.

In Score, a new documentary set for wide release in May, filmmakers Kenny Holmes and Matt Schrader feature leading film music composers—including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat—who describe the extraordinary artistry and execution in crafting a memorable score.

“Whether they’re talking about their contemporaries or the greats of yesteryear, the composers express a profound admiration that’s born of an intimate understanding of what makes a work groundbreaking or indelible,” wrote Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter.

The documentary begins with the silent film era. To drown out the distracting sound of a film projector, theatres hired a pianist or organist to convey the action or emotion. That changed with the debut of King Kong in 1933, featuring the RKO Studio Orchestra and a score by Max Steiner.

Orchestral music became a fixture in filmmaking when Bernard Herrmann, a CBS staff conductor, met Orson Welles in the late 1930’s. He wrote and arranged scores for several of Welles’s radio series, including War of the Worlds, then followed Welles to Hollywood, where he wrote the score for Citizen Kane, which premiered in 1941.

Herrmann also is known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he wrote the scores for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. When you recall the frightening shower scene with Janet Leigh in Psycho, you likely will “replay” the piercing violin sound Herrmann used to augment the horror.

The tempo changed in the 1960’s when filmmakers turned to rock and roll tracks and other source music for such iconic films as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.

The next big shift was the reintroduction of the studio orchestra —most notably by legendary composer John Williams. Williams is credited with reviving the interest in and use of orchestral musicians and large recording studios, such as Abbey Road in London, for his inimitable sound.

Finally, the film shows how today’s composers are turning to unusual instruments—tribal, traditional—and to digital composition and production for their inspiration. One composer said that if the score gives him goose bumps, he knows he’s hit the mark.

The film most recently received a Directors Choice Award for excellence in filmmaking at the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF). In a Q&A at SIFF, Holmes remarked on their difficulties scheduling time with the busy composers, yet overcame a frequent obstacle for independent filmmakers—funding—by conducting a global crowdfunding campaign to help defray post-production costs.

Thanks to Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone for this guest post. She’s author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

Moonlight

Moonlight, Barry Jenkins

Alex Hibbert & Mahershala Ali

The holiday dry spell of movies worth watching is officially over. Lots of good films filling the theaters. I’m glad we caught Moonlight (trailer), written and directed by Barry Jenkins (III) before it faded, though maybe it will be around longer now with the Oscar Best Picture nomination. I’d seen the preview and came away asking myself, what the heck is this movie about?, instead of my usual, why did they give away so much of the story?!!

Immediately I was persuaded to see it, though, upon learning the play it’s based on was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose Brothers Size plays were so powerful on the McCarter Theatre stage a couple of seasons ago. (McCraney recently received the 2017 PEN America Literary Award for a mid-career playwright!) Whatever it was about, I knew it would be worth watching. Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com calls it “one of the essential American films of 2016.”

In some ways it reminds me of modern (30 under 30) fiction-writing. A bit of disjointedness and a big dose of grit are part of the package. We see protagonist Chiron (pronounced Shih-RONE) at age 10 or so (Alex Hibbert), as a high school student (Ashton Sanders) negotiating tricky teenage waters in a violent environment, and finally as a young adult (Trevante Rhodes), struggling with his sexuality. While he in some ways advances, becoming more physically powerful, if still emotionally fragile, his mother (Naomie Harris) succumbs to her addictions and her sentimentality. His one lifelong friend Kevin (André Holland) cannot be the lifeline he needs.

As Mara Reinstein says in US Weekly, the movie “touches on themes of race, sexuality and isolation in ways that are rarely depicted in cinema.” A late scene with the adult Chiron and his mother, says so little in words and so much in feeling that it feels like a documentary. It doesn’t seem like actors reading lines; it’s real people struggling to connect.

The actors playing Chiron at all three ages do a stellar job. Two actors recently in very different parts in Hidden Figures appear again here: Mahershala Ali as the young Chiron’s drug dealer mentor and Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend.

Various artistic touches distinguish this film, reminding you it is a deliberately created thing. Parts of it are filmed with such super-saturated tropical heat that the stills would be like artworks in themselves. McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami’s Liberty Square area, and the film carries the strength of their grip on its realities.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 88%.

EXTRA: The young Chiron and young Kevin (Jaden Piner) are both students of a gifted drama teacher at a Miami-area middle school, who encouraged her students to participate in the movie’s auditions, as described recently on public radio.

Tarell McCraney & I

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea, Casey AffleckCasey Affleck is remarkable as Lee Chandler, full to the brim with bottled-up pain, in this masterful drama (trailer), written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan. You don’t learn the source of his hostile and erratic behavior until a good way in, although multiple flashbacks to earlier, happier times with his older brother Joe and nephew Patrick show different sides of this character—never easy, perhaps, but not a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

The film opens with Lee tending his duties as the maintenance man—and first-line-of-defense against chaos—for four Quincy, Massachusetts, apartment buildings and living in a one-room basement flat in one of them. He has exiled himself from his home town of Manchester by the Sea and the seacoast life there, putting all of metro Boston in between him and his past. (MBTS sounds like the setting for a Victorian novel, but it’s located on Cape Ann, about halfway between Gloucester and Beverly, Mass.)

One wintry day—the weather in this movie is as frozen and blustery as Lee is—he receives a call that Joe has had another cardiac episode and heads north for Manchester. When he reaches the hospital, Joe has died, and he’s been given guardianship of the now teenage Patrick. Forms must be followed, arrangements made, and the funeral survived.

All this brings Lee abruptly into contact with his past. Being in Manchester isn’t easy—too many memories, too many people who know him, too many who remember. But he needs to look after his high school Lothario nephew Patrick, so he sticks it out. Says Matthew Lickona from the San Diego Reader, “It’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken.”

There were no cheap or cheesy moments in this layered tale, thanks to Lonergan’s superb writing. His people aren’t always easy to get along with. Their marriages don’t always work. Their kids aren’t perfect. Yet, there can be hidden strengths in relationships, and sometimes, some people do their best, even when the going is hard.

Top-notch performances all around. Besides Affleck, there are Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, Kyle Chandler as Joe, Gretchen Mol as Joe’s ex, Elise, and C. J. Wilson as the brothers’ stalwart friend George. Lucas Hedges is terrific as Patrick.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences: 82%.

Jackie

Jackie, Natalie PortmanChilean director Pablo Larraín has created a mesmerizing film (trailer) about 34-year-old former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the unimaginably painful three days between the assassination of our 35th President and the funeral she orchestrated for him. A chief virtue of the film is that, although it is deeply moving, it is free of typically sentimental Hollywood touches. For Americans who remember those days, the film will unearth many painful memories.

The film purports to recreate the interview between Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman)—caught as Rex Reed said “in the tragic headlights of history”—and an unnamed interviewer (Billy Crudup). In real life, the interviewer was prominent political journalist and historian Theodore H. White and, as in the movie, the interview took place only a week after the assassination for this issue of Life magazine. You can see his handwritten notes here.

Jackie appreciates the historical significance of her husband’s murder and is determined to give her husband his due. This is as much because she believes the office deserves it as it is to assure his legacy. She takes inspiration for the funeral from that of another assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of her grief, she embarks on an exercise in myth-making in which the interviewer (again, as in real life) is complicit.

She has had her own accomplishments, of course. She has restored much of the White House with historical accuracy and invited cultural icons for performances there. Her aim, she says, was to make everything in the People’s House “the best” it could be. In the three compressed days before the funeral, it is sometimes as if she is moving underwater through an ocean of grief. Yet much is demanded of her: planning the funeral and selecting the burial site, celebrating her son’s birthday November 25, preparing to move out of the White House, and supporting her children.

Natalie Portman well captures Jackie’s breathy delivery and Peter Sarsgaard Robert Kennedy’s Boston accent. Both give excellent performances, allowing you to set aside differences in physical appearance. As a result, Caspar Phillipson, who bears such a striking resemblance to Jack Kennedy, is startling in his brief role.

Larrain assembled a strong supporting cast—principally, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary, Nancy Tuckerman; Billy Crudup as the interviewer; John Hurt (whom I did not at recognize at all) as the priest called in to counsel the distraught widow; and Richard E. Grant as her design consultant.

Next November 22, it will be 55 years since the assassination, and still the loss of innocence, the loss of Camelot, haunts us. Though this idyllic association was inspired by Jackie and first popularized by White, it took root in Americans’ minds because it seemed so right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 73%.