In Marvelous “20th Century Women,” a Boy Becomes a Feminist

20th Century Women

20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

Halfway through 20th Century Women, I asked myself if the film would pass the Bechdel test, that (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek method of analyzing movies based on whether there are multiple female characters who talk about more than their relationships with men. Not even Alison Bechdel, herself, thinks we should evaluate works of art according to this sole criterion, but it can be helpful as a way to gain perspective on the many ways in which women are so often diminished on screen (and everywhere else). The new film from director Mike Mills (Beginners) has three strong female characters, yet each is defined in the story, at least initially, vis-à-vis her interaction with the teenage boy at the center of the narrative. Nevertheless, I would still call it a profoundly feminist movie, since it celebrates not only the achievements of these women, but also the boy’s appreciation of them as fully three-dimensional beings. His adolescent angst may drive the plot, but it’s the catalyst through which the women confront their own evolving lives.

As much celebration of Mills’ own mother as anything else, 20th Century Women is primarily a showcase for the wonderful Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) who plays Dorothea, born in 1924 (the story takes place in 1979) and divorced mother to 15-year-old Jamie (played by relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she had when she was 40. They live in a ramshackle mansion in Santa Barbara, California, joined by tenants Abbie, a 24-year-old freelance photographer played by a pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), and William, a 40-something handyman doing renovations on the place, played by an appealing Billy Crudup (Jackie), both of whom help give the place a friendly community vibe. Their makeshift family is completed by a neighborhood girl – two years older than Jamie – named Julie, played by the ever-talented Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon). After an accident sends Jamie to the hospital, Dorothea decides she may not be enough for him. She’s tried bringing William in as a strong male figure, but kind and sensitive as he is, there’s no chemistry there. So, instead, she asks Abbie and Julie to step in, proposing an arrangement where the three of them will, together, provide the support to Jamie that Dorothea feels he needs.

The experiment doesn’t go smoothly, but does provide many opportunities for gentle humor and reflection on the struggles of women – self-identified feminists and otherwise – at a crucial juncture in American history, just before the consumerism of the Reagan era took over the country’s ethos. We’re even treated to the final minute of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech to place us firmly in that era and its shifting socio-politico-cultural terrain. Indeed, time is of the very essence: peppered with stills and clips from throughout the last century, the movie is a meditation on both the passage of time and the varying speeds at which our lives go by, depending on the moment, as Mills manipulates the frame rate of interval scenes to accelerate the action. In addition, Dorothea, Abbie and Julie each represent a different stage of life, their birth dates given in clear title cards, and their biographies delivered in voiceover. Bening, Gerwig and Fanning work beautifully together, as they do with Zumon and Crudup. At times funny, at other times poignant, 20th Century Women is always engaging and rich in meaning, honoring both the women in its story and the actresses who play them.

“Silence” Is a Powerful, If Long, Elegy to Faith and Meaning

Silence

Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

Though possibly an hour too long, Martin Scorsese’s Silence – a monumental testament to the power and ravages of religious faith – is the director’s best work in years. Beautifully acted by Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (Paterson), Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Kotoko), Tadanobu Asano (Grasshopper), Yôsuke Kubozuka (Helter Skelter), Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls) and Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), among many others, the film is notable for its dramatic restraint, as if Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) had taken the title to heart. An adaptation of Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, Silence tells the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Japan who have the grave misfortune to be alive in the early 17th century, when that country decided to close itself off to foreign influence, effectively banning all practicing Christians and those who would serve them and convert still more. Left on their own by the rulers back home, these priests struggle against impossible odds tending to their shattered flock. The real challenge is their own despair. In response to prayer, they hear only God’s silence. This is the ultimate test of belief.

Scorsese starts the movie with the gentle sound of birds under a black screen, before cutting immediately to silence. We then find ourselves on a sloping hill, a thick mist outlining armored figures like an homage to an Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) film. This is 1633, just as the anti-Christian purges begin. Neeson plays Father Ferreira, a gaunt hulk of a man who watches the crucifixions without any sense of how to prevent them. His weary voice narrates the massacre, the report of which reaches the head of his order (Hinds) in Lisbon, who reads aloud its contents to Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver), two younger priests trained by Ferreira. They determine to travel back to Japan to investigate, since no one has heard from Ferreira for years now (mail traveled slowly in that time), and simultaneously offer succor to persecuted believers. They eventually make it to their destination, via China, thanks to an alcoholic Japanese fisherman, Kichijiro (Kubozuka), who was once a Christian, but has now renounced the faith. Once in Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe discover a village of secret believers, who take in the foreigners and hide them by day, worshipping by night. Eventually, however, the chief inquisitor (Tsukamoto) arrives, having heard rumors of new “padres” (as the priests are called by the locals), and both he and his interpreter (Asano) prove to be clever and ruthless antagonists. The weight of history is against our Jesuit friends. This will not end well.

And yet, unlike most other films by Scorsese, there will not be a lot of bloodshed (though there is one grisly beheading). Instead, the director focuses on the inner torture of these quiet souls, who fervently believe in what they preach and are unable to comprehend the Japanese authorities’ aggression. We know that Japan, in its own eyes, had very good reason to fear the encroachment of foreign (i.e., European) powers, given what was happening elsewhere in the world. It was not until the 19th century that the country opened its doors to the then-modern world, and though the Japanese were technologically backwards as a result of their previous isolation, they were also masters of their own political fate (as much as a feudal society can be), and not a colonial outpost. However one feels about the decision to expel the non-violent priests – whose religion was seen as a gateway to further foreign influence – there was a method to the madness. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these reasons are explained, at one point, by the film’s Japanese characters, there are still moments when Silence threatens to become like many another movie about Japanese internment-camp atrocities, such as Angelina Jolie’s recent Unbroken. We’ve seen that story a few too many times. Fortunately, however, Scorsese quickly moves beyond the clichés to examine the psychological toll of the torture on men who have professed to love God at all costs.

What is faith, and when is one prepared to die for it? Is one prepared to watch others die for one’s own beliefs? This is the true nature of the dilemma faced by Rodrigues, Garrpe and Ferreira. They are repeatedly asked to commit apostasy and deny their religion, and each faces the crisis in his own way. Some do, some don’t, some resist and then do. Endō, who based his novel on real-life accounts, explores in depth the limits of human physical and spiritual endurance. Perhaps Scorsese’s film is so long to test our own endurance, yet there is magnificent beauty throughout. Garfield, especially, whose character’s arc forms the main through line, holds the movie together with a performance of extreme sensitivity, ably supported by a very strong Driver and Neeson. Quiet and disciplined, they turn Silence into a plaintive meditation on sacrifice and survival that is an elegant elegy to our eternal search for meaning in this world.

“Patriots Day” Pays Effective Tribute to Boston in the Aftermath of Tragedy

[This review also posted on Film Festival Today, and here is that link.]

Patriots Day

Patriots Day (Peter Berg, 2016)

A taut procedural about the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombingPatriots Day, from director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), presents the facts of a case that we already know in an engaging manner that does justice to  both the story and the actual participants in the tragedy. Starring Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2), Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and (sadly, wasted in a mostly symbolic part as Wahlberg’s wife) Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss), among many others in a large ensemble cast. The film moves along at a brisk pace from set-up to terrorist attack to manhunt, only occasionally faltering in its mission to entertain (usually when it resorts to swelling music and expositional speeches). As long as it sticks to the detective work and character study, it’s a solid thriller.

What I find particularly impressive in our current climate of increasing Islamophobia is the way in which Berg and his fellow screenwriters take the time to humanize the perpetrators, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No, they don’t excuse their behavior, nor delve too deeply into their motivations, but they do make them three-dimensional beings, which is all to the benefit of the movie. After all, real people did this, and very few of us are born killers, so why not explore the dynamic at play? Especially since subsequent research did, in fact, reveal that the elder Tamerlan was the one who pushed Dzhokhar into the crime. Here, the latter is shown to be just as much stoner as radical, not quite the jihadist his brothers wishes him to be. As played by Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual man – Dzhokhar is a most reluctant warrior, indeed, though he does his fair share of killing in the end. None of this careful characterization exonerates the villains; it just makes them flesh-and-blood bad guys, rather than ghouls.

But the movie truly belongs to the victims, witnesses and law-enforcement officers of Boston, who all come together to solve the mystery of who did what, none of which is clear in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Little by little, however, using footage from security cameras scattered around the city, the police and FBI hone in on “white hat” and “black hat,” as they dub the suspects, each of whom wears a baseball cap of that color. Two big decisions threaten to stall the investigation: whether to label it an act of terrorism, since that immediately raises the threat level; and whether or not to release the photos of the men they think did it. In both cases, the local FBI director (Bacon) worries that jumping the gun too soon could lead to even worse consequences. It’s fascinating to watch how the territorial and ideological disputes play out (just as it is to watch the arguments of the Tsarnaevs). As we know, our heroes eventually got their guys. What we may not know, however, is how much violence and chaos went down before that happened. Although I assume that Berg – as do all directors – exercises some dramatic license, there’s a hard-enough edge to his filmmaking that the action feels real, more docudrama than fiction, a sensation strengthened at the very end, when we see the actual people of the story over the end credits.  Overall, then, this is a worthy tribute to the folks in Boston who helped solve the case, and well worth watching.

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Roxana Hadadi – on “Hidden Figures,” “Paterson” and Best Movies of 2016

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Roxana Hadadi, film critic for “Chesapeake Family”

Welcome to the third episode of the 2016-2017 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. My guest this time was Roxana Hadadi, film critic for Chesapeake Family. We reviewed two new films – Hidden Figures and Paterson – and then discussed our respective favorite (and not-so-favorite) movies of 2016 (for my complete list, check out my blog entry from December 31).

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first and second episodes of this current season, plus all six from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. We’ll be back at the start of November with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

3 Recent “BmoreArt” Articles: Maryland Film Festival’s “Between the Screens” Event, Holiday Movie Guide, and “Wits End” Review

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In November, BmoreArt published my first-ever print article – an interview with famed local filmmaker John Waters – in its third print edition (which you can buy at this link). Since then, the magazine’s online site has published three more pieces of mine: an overview of a recent Maryland Film Festival event featuring filmmakers Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Lodge Kerrigan (Starz! Network’s The Girlfriend Experience) and Baltimore-based Matt Porterfield (Putty Hill); a guide to movies playing in our area at the end of December/start of January; and a brief review of a low-budget indie dramedy, Wits End, from local standup comedian Mike Finazzo. Here are links to all three articles:

Enjoy!

5 Reviews @hammertonail: “The Ardennes,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Pet Fooled” + Criterion Blu-Rays of “One-Eyed Jacks” & “Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro”

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Here are five new posts of mine at Hammer to NailThe Ardennes, a Belgian crime drama that pits brother against brother; Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?, a documentary about the battle over prescription pain medicine; Pet Fooled, a documentary about the dangers that lurk in your pet’s food; the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of actor Marlon Brando’s sole outing as a director, the 1961 Western One-Eyed Jacks, a great revenge tale that pits partner against partner; and the Criterion’s massive Blu-ray collection, “Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro,” which features director Guillermo del Toro’s CronosThe Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (his three Spanish-language films), each exploring different facets of the juncture of the real and the fantastic. Here are the links to the reviews:

Enjoy!

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2016

What follows is a list of what I consider the best acting in films released in 2016. On December 31, 2016, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and most actors in most of the narrative (fiction) films on my list turned in admirable performances. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. A few actors and actresses in films which I did not put among my highest choices (but maybe as a runner-up, although one actor, Ralph Fiennes, was in a film nowhere near my Top 10) still made it onto this new list, since they were so mesmerizing and memorable, even if the film was less so.

Therefore, the actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of his/her performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include a trailer or featurette, instead) – are the 5 per category (I stick with just 5, like the Academy, though this is sometimes difficult) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review (if such a review exists; if not, I have linked to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page), and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and (perhaps) my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

In alphabetical order, by last name within each category, I give you:

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening, 20th Century Women

Betsy Brandt, Claire in Motion

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Ruth Negga, Loving

Emma Stone, La La Land

BEST ACTOR

Casey Affleck,* Manchester by the Sea

Joel Edgerton, Loving

Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Viola Davis, Fences (should be Best Actress, but she is being pushed in this category, instead, so … the clip may have a thumbnail of Denzel Washington, but mostly features Viola Davis)

Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women (incredible to me that I include her here, since I have traditionally not liked her performances)

Lily Gladstone, Certain Women (Gladstone is the Native-American woman tending the ranch who is also in the scenes with Kristen Stewart, pictured below in the thumbnail, rather than Gladstone)

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Rachel Weisz, The Lobster (this clip has a thumbnail of Colin Farrell, but features – and is narrated by – Rachel Weisz)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water (this clip has a thumbnail of Chris Pine – also good – but features Ben Foster just as much)

Dev Patel, Lion (should be Best Actor, but he is being pushed in this category, instead, so …)

Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight

*As far as Casey Affleck goes, I am aware of the disturbing allegations of past sexual harassment, but include him here, anyway, since his performance should be judged separately from his behavior. That said, I will not be unhappy if any of the other people on this list win awards, instead of him.

If “A Monster Calls,” You Should Answer

Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)

In his introduction to the 2011 book on which this movie is based, author Patrick Ness (The Chaos Walking series) pays tribute to the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007), who came up with the original idea for the novel but died before being able to do anything with that idea. So Ness, a fan of Dowd’s work, as well as a friend, took on the challenge, and the result was a deeply moving and heartfelt story about a boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s cancer. The film adaptation, from J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), while not quite as magical as the book – something about the visual concretization of the monster takes away from his appeal – mostly does justice to its message that the only way forward through pain and loss is to accept that they are part of life.

Conor (Lewis McDougall, quite fine here, though his only previous screen credit was in the dreadful Panlives with his divorced mom (Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, good as always), his father having decamped to America a few years prior. He’s a lonely boy, invisible to his school peers, except for a trio of nasty bullies. Shy and withdrawn, he is “other.” Mostly, though, he is sad, troubled by a recurring nightmare of desolation, out of which he emerges every night in a cold sweat, his screams echoing in his ears. One night, as he awakes, there appears a monster (beautifully voiced by Liam Neeson, Silence), formed from the yew tree in the distance. That monster has come for Conor, but not to kill him; rather, he says it just wants to tell three stories. And so it goes. Out of their subsequent conversations over many nights springs a mystery that informs the affecting tapestry of this sorrowful, yet life-affirming, tale.

There’s more to the movie than that, however, especially once the mother’s condition worsens. Conor goes to live with his stiff and formal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, Chappie, a strong presence, even though she would be wise to avoid any attempts at an English accent), deals with a visit from his visiting father (Toby Kebbel, Ben-Hur, adequate) and fights back against those bullies. Compared to these real-life problems, what’s a monster? Indeed, that’s exactly the point: nothing is as frightening as the world at large, if we let it terrorize us, so best learn to struggle and triumph over one’s demons. Each story the monster tells Conor has this truth women into its narrative, so that, by the end, Conor is prepared for the worst.

Speaking of the stories, the animation in their sequences – hinted at in the lovely opening credits – is gorgeous. Even though I preferred conjuring the images in my own imagination when I read the book, if one must see someone else’s vision, then this is the way to go. Rendered as living watercolors, they drip, shimmer and splash across the screen in vivid color, a treat for the eyes. Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, adds a coda to his story – involving the origin of these watercolors – that I did not like, since it explains too much, but that doesn’t take away from the raw power of what the drawings represent. Despite its occasional flaws, then, the movie is still a worthy tribute to its source material, and a welcome addition to the canon of films that teach children how to grow up with dignity.

Enjoyable, if Simplistic, “Hidden Figures” Sheds Needed Light on Hidden History of NASA

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Hidden Figures is the second feature from writer/director Theodore Melfi, who brought us St. Vincent in 2014. Where that film was a low-key, offbeat comedy starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, this sophomore effort has a much larger agenda. Here, we right an historical wrong, looking back at the important – and overlooked – contributions that a group of three African-American women made to our nation’s space program. This film has star power, as well, with Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Taraji P. Henson (Think Like a Man Too) and singer Janelle Monáe, not to mention Kevin Costner (McFarland, USA), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo: Season 2) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). Does it work as art and entertainment, as well as corrective history?

It sure does, even if, along the way, it simplifies the narrative (and the science) in the way that only Hollywood biopics can. We get broad beats and a clear three-act structure, the whole punctuated by a score that tells us when to feel what emotion, and at the end the good folks triumph. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really, unless you like your history re-told with the complexity that is its due. To be fair, it’s not easy to compress a story this big in just a few hours and do justice to the intricacies of race, gender and science at its center. Still, Melfi has his heart in the right place, and as we saw in St. Vincent, he has an ear for good dialogue. He’s blessed with a stellar cast, and makes the most of them.

Based on the book of the same title, by Margot Lee Sheerly, (which profiled 4, and not 3, women), Hidden Figures follows the trials and tribulations of three math wizards – all women, all African-American – in the early 1960s as the United States was trying to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. The Russians got their first, so the next goal was to get to the moon before they did. For that, we needed all of our talented citizens, even those who had to drink from “colored” water fountains and use “colored” bathrooms. Yes, Virginia (which is actually where the film takes place), segregation was the still the law of the land in many places while we, in the ostensible “land of the free,” were trying to win the Cold War against our authoritarian (aka, not “free”) enemies across the pond. Melfi does a great job, simplicity and all, with his exposé of our hypocrisy. It’s too bad that he is less good on the math, making Henson’s Katherine – supposedly a great mathematical thinker – speak about her subject in ways designed to make a fifth grader understand. I get why he would do that – who among us average viewers is a genius – but it feels silly.

Barring that, however, this is solid entertainment, providing a showcase for three talented actresses and their supporting players. As recent events in our country have shown, even after 8 years with our first-ever African-American President, we still have far to go in terms of racial healing, we are still riven by race and gender. So watch Hidden Figures to see women of color who broke down the restrictive barriers of their time, and think about what lessons can be applied in the days, weeks and years ahead.