20th Century Women

Mike Mills’s follow up to “Beginners” tries to be too profound for too many generations

20thCenturyWomen PosterMike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.

The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence. Continue reading “20th Century Women”

The Neon Demon

Elle Fanning stars in a horror movie about beauty and the fashion industry by the director of “Drive.”

neondemonsmall“Am I staring?” In these first few lines of “The Neon Demon,” Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s invitation to stare gives his latest film both its perverse pleasure and questionable subtext. With “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” Refn’s films have long been a combination of the violent and tantalizing. So it’s natural that the Danish director would make “The Neon Demon,” a psycho-horror art house drama about beauty and the grotesque pursuit of perfection. And while it works as stunning exploitation cinema, it’s perhaps less so as a comment on the fashion world it’s depicting.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an all-natural 16-year-old model from the Midwest with that “deer in the headlights look” because it’s exactly what they’re looking for. In her first photo shoot, she’s sprawled on a chair in a luxurious gown with fake blood dripping from around her neck and torso. Immediately there’s a sexual quality to the way she wipes away the blood to reveal her youth, and of course the rival models she meets in dark, neon-lit night club bathrooms certainly have a blood-sucking, vampire quality.

The older models ask her what kind of lipstick she wears. One wears “Redrum,” while another’s is called “Fuck Off,” but for Jesse, she gets one named after a dessert, “because she’s so sweet.” But Jesse’s vice is her own perfection. Whereas all the other models have already had work done to keep them looking immaculate, the cold, calculating eyes of one woman within the modeling agency (Christina Hendricks) or the blank stare of the top photographer (Alessandro Nivola) all see right past them.

Of course the judging doesn’t stop at lipstick. One girl comments that whenever another beautiful woman enters the room, the first question that pops into mind is, “Who is she fucking, and can she climb higher than me?” Feminists may seriously raise an eyebrow at that statement, and for good reason. Is Refn critiquing this intense superficiality, does he believe it exists among women of this world, or is this a commonality? It’s hard to tell in a movie so lush and specifically enraptured by style, color and sexuality.

“Drive” and “Only God Forgives” have dazzling cinematography, but “The Neon Demon” in particular makes every frame look like a photograph. Refn places Fanning in a soft blue gown in front of a white infinity backdrop and in the next moment will bathe the room in lens flares and garish patterns. It’s equal parts Gothic Horror, Neo-Noir and Sci-Fi whenever it sees fit.

Although “The Neon Demon” in part feels fun because it is so inconsistent and wild. “Only God Forgives” was plain lifeless, and this film by comparison has a bizarre sense of humor. Keanu Reeves plays Hank, the motel clerk where Jesse lives, and he can alternatively get some laughs and screams trying to capture a cougar that found its way into Jesse’s room. Refn even goes all out on the sexuality front, with Jena Malone as a jealous makeup artist bravely putting herself in the most compromising situation imaginable.

Refn though may still have crossed a line. “The Neon Demon” gets more sickening and disturbing as the other women slowly devour Jesse’s beauty, figuratively and literally, and that shock value quickly goes out of fashion.

3 stars

Trumbo

Bryan Cranston plays Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach’s biopic.

TrumboPosterDid the injustice of the Hollywood Blacklist have to do with Americans’ Cold War fears, how we suppressed the First Amendment rights of thousands, or how we wrongly persecuted and led a witch hunt against innocents and those just expressing political beliefs? Or was it all because Dalton Trumbo was just too good?

“Trumbo”, the biopic on the life of the Oscar winning, yet blacklisted screenwriter, is filled with some stirring sentiments and American values. As Trumbo, Bryan Cranston delivers winning speeches with impeccable diction, all while maintaining his position as a contentious, even disagreeable figure. Jay Roach’s film though may just be a little too fun for its lofty ambitions. The screenplay touts values of Free Speech, but the story itself suggests the motto, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Trumbo was brought up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, so the film is fascinated with that Old Hollywood charm, playing off campy fun biopic beats as it checks off the list of stars who made their way through Trumbo’s life: Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger. The cast all gets their moments to do their mini-impressions of some of Hollywood’s most iconic and eccentric figures. “Trumbo” even opens with a montage of some of Trumbo’s many credits and takes us through his work on “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus”, “The Brave One”, and “Exodus”, and Roach peppers the score with slinky jazz and a light, breezy tone. Much early on is even told through news reels rather than personal moments.

And yet “Trumbo” can be questionably chipper when dealing with the severity of The Blacklist and The Hollywood 10. Trumbo was one of the first waves of Communists brought in front of HUAC, or the House Un-American Activities Committee, to testify and name names about his involvement with the Communist Party. Many Hollywood insiders, including his liberal friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), sold him and his colleagues out. In turn, Trumbo and the other nine spent up to a year in prison despite not committing a crime, and they were barred from ever working in Hollywood again.

Trumbo instead took up aliases and fixed up bad B-movie scripts for producer Frank King (John Goodman), and Roach has a lot of fun with this concept. The behind-the-scenes dealings and a money-grubbing John Goodman brandishing a baseball bat at those threatening to boycott him are hugely entertaining, and often more of interest to Roach than the pain and suffering brought on by the Blacklist.

Roach illustrates the hatred of Communists through plainspoken bigots throwing drinks at Trumbo at a movie theater or the big talk threats of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). But it overlooks the Trumbo family retreat to Mexico, or the deaths that even took place during the period. Instead he zones in on the family drama and how Trumbo’s shadow screenplay work took a toll on his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his equally political and outspoken daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning in Nikola’s teenage years).

Cranston though is largely the catalyst behind “Trumbo’s” added weight, political significance and modern relevance. His Hollywood 10 colleague Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) asks, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled onto a rock?” Cranston’s hitched up pants, his hunched posture as he marches about the room, and the way he chomps on a cigarette or cigar certainly smack of a “performance”, but he’s modest enough in his speech to make it convincing. Where everyone else is clear-cut about their politics, Cranston plays Trumbo as largely articulate and argumentative of principles over strict ideas. In one scene he stands up to John Wayne and challenges Duke’s non-existent war record, despite how he invokes the war to condemn people like Trumbo. The wit and words behind Cranston’s performance help elevate Trumbo as an artist and thinker but also show how he might be difficult at parties.

Roach’s film may be too entrenched in Hollywood history and royalty to not somewhat diminish the Cold War era hardships of the Blacklist, but Trumbo’s name was suppressed for years, and now this film proudly adorns it as a fitting title and story.

3 stars

Maleficent

Angelina Jolie is the only plausible actress to recreate Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” villainess

“You poor, simple fools, thinking you could defeat me. Me! The Mistress of All Evil!” – Maleficent, “Sleeping Beauty” (1959)

With her boastful, grandiose poise, her fiendish cackling and her hateful, sarcastic and sly mocking of her own minions, Maleficent is Disney’s truly great villain. She is the only one who could be seen as completely sadistic. Free of irony or humor, Disney created a movie monster capable of pure, well, maleficence.

And within just moments of Disney’s latest spinoff and CGI, live-action reboot/reimagining, “Maleficent” manages to erase all of the character’s iconography and bravura.  Continue reading “Maleficent”

Somewhere

Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” is not as successful at tackling the themes of “Lost in Translation,” but it does gives us a glimmer of hope

Never has a performance of two hot twin nurses spinning on stripper poles to the tune of Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” been as listless as it is in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” It’s not merely the story of a guy so jaded with these pleasures but of a person with so little going on in his life that this incident feels quite literally like nothing at all.

Coppola first introduces us to movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) racing around a track in his Ferrari, an elegant, but obvious way of saying he’s going nowhere fast. In between films and sporting a broken wrist, his life has diminished to pure tedium.

He sits through mindless press conferences, interviews and awards shows and waits motionless as special effects artist smother him in clay. These are the more mundane moments of a movie star, but arguably still exciting enough for some people. Coppola however shoots without much focus in the frame, mismatched colors and a movie free of music that makes it appear as if these moments were non-events. Continue reading “Somewhere”

We Bought a Zoo

If you are even the slightest bit less jaded, cynical and bitter to life and movies than me, the film critic who cannot enjoy anything but dark, thoughtful art house movies in black and white and a foreign language, then do not hesitate to see “We Bought a Zoo.” It will make you feel elated. You will bawl your eyes out with tears of pure sunshine.

“We Bought a Zoo” is possibly the most joyously tepid movie ever made. It is schlock, formula tearjerker filmmaking to perfection. It is as dopey and exuberantly cute and infectious as any movie you will ever see ever.

Watching it, I felt like Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) teenage boy, just rolling my eyes and muttering under my breath at every passing moment to all the fun emotions and happy people around me.

Except like a teenage boy, I’m brooding and hating it all for no good reason. It’s lame and bad and predictable and stupid and formulaic, but it’s all so HAPPY.  You don’t watch the movie or think about it; you just cheer in glee. Continue reading “We Bought a Zoo”

Super 8 Review

J.J. Abrams’s “Super 8” is a thrilling sci-fi that uses Steven Spielberg’s classics as inspiration.

Some kids in a small town in the late ‘70s are making a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera. The director Charlie says his movie needs to have a story, characters we care about and real production value. So he gets his middle school friends to read lines like “I love you too,” to paint themselves in zombie makeup and to blow up model trains with real explosives.

To think there was a time when kids actually knew what a movie needed to make a memorable summer thrill.

J.J. Abrams, the director of the spirited and exciting monster movie mystery and adventure “Super 8,” is still one of the new kids on the block in the movie world. He’s a household name on television, but as somewhat of a director-for-hire on franchise pictures like “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek,” he’s been waiting for an original story like this one to show he looks up to the big boys still making movies, specifically Steven Spielberg.

Continue reading “Super 8 Review”

Rapid Response: My Neighbor Totoro

After doing an article on animation in the art world and popular culture for my student publication the IDS WEEKEND, I gained a real appreciation for how impossibly difficult animation is. Hand drawn cel animation demands a level of mastery amongst its animators, and it becomes such a shame when the film put in front of it is so ordinary and drab. “My Neighbor Totoro” is by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and many consider this film to be his masterpiece.

Thousands have seen this film from 1988 following Disney’s re-release of the film in America with English dubbed voices done by Dakota and Elle Fanning, and they’ve responded so highly because it is a charming family film where everything is beautiful, happy and perfectly imperfect, no one is evil and everything is rich with color, imagination and joy.

Watching it, I found myself with a grin from cheek to cheek throughout its 86 minute run, and while it is rich with a carefree comedy, it’s also wonderfully bright and detailed in its animation of the surrounding world.

For those who have seen a Miyazaki film (and those that have often revere him with cult status) know his admiration for the fantastical and the appreciation for the environmental. “My Neighbor Totoro” does have supernatural elements, but it does not immerse you in them immediately the way “Spirited Away,” his other masterpiece, does, and nor does it hammer home with the green message the way it does in “Princess Mononoke,” also a brilliant film.

It makes “My Neighbor Totoro” the perfect film to show when introducing them to anime, to Miyazaki and possibly even to film itself.