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%.

Chichi’s Magic and the Books of Childhood

My namesake’s third birthday is coming up on Valentine’s Day, and when thinking about a gift, I thought back to the presents I enjoyed as a child. Books, same as now. First to come to mind was Chichi’s Magic, about a mischievous monkey (is there any other kind?) in the Central American jungle who finds a mirror—the magic. My uncle worked for The Steck Company, a commercial printing firm that served banks, schools, and the like, but also published a series of children’s books called “Woodland Frolics,” and Chichi’s Magic was one of them. Part of the joy of the book was that it came from him. Possessed by nostalgia, I ordered the book from ALibris. It arrived. I flipped through it, loving the pictures, but hesitated to read it again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as charming as I remembered. What I do remember now seems so fragmentary and idiosyncratic. Chichi wanders the countries of Central America. I learned their names. Chichi encounters ancient Mayan ruins, which laid the foundation for a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian civilizations. Chichi encounters a beautiful green quetzal—a strange word for a fourth-grader—and I recall its extravagant tail. But the book is clearly too advanced for the birthday girl, so will be lovingly saved until she’s older. Another book I hope to share with her is one I read many times, Heidi. I associate her with delicious goat’s milk cheese and the sweet aroma of spring flowers in alpine meadows. Still today it’s hard to resist a charming round cheese in the dairy case. I remember Heidi as the first time I was bothered by having pictures in a storybook, because the artist’s drawings did not match the vision in my head. Reading their books repeatedly, children acquire images and associations that in later life may take some digging to uncover. Hidden threads woven into the mental fabric.

Exploring Further: A blog post by another person who fell under the spell of Chichi’s Magic

Scholastic’s “Celebrity Bookprints,” where some 300 celebrities–from Bill Clinton to Mehmet Oz to R.L. Stine—describe the five books that have been most important to them.