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”


Todd Solondz’s latest morose comedy and ensemble piece follows four owners of the same dachshund.

Wiener-DogPoster2Always get the name of the dog. That’s a reporting tip to find that extra detail that your audience will remember. In Todd Solondz’s latest film “Wiener-Dog,” this little brown dachshund goes from being named Doody to Cancer between four separate owners, and each name seems to reflect something different about the quirky, strange people behind it.

“Wiener-Dog” is an ensemble piece, much in the tradition of one of Solondz’s morose and squirm-inducing comedies such as “Happiness,” but Solondz drops the connecting threads that explain how this dog got from owner to owner pretty quick. He even includes a cute intermission of the dog walking in front of a green screen displaying locations across the country. It instead plays like four short films, and the varying tones between them give “Wiener-Dog” equal feelings of yearning and failure, satire and gross-out humor, and above all highs and lows.

The dog’s first owner is a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who names it simply Wiener-Dog. His wealthy parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) want him to be happy, but keep Wiener-Dog in a cage in the garage and talk about training it as a bleak way of breaking its will. Delpy delivers a hilariously tender talk to her son about spaying and neutering, in which one stray dog who went without getting spayed ended up getting raped, contracting AIDS and dying. It’s gleefully disturbing imagery, that is until at least Solondz quite literally drags our nose in shit, or more accurately, doggie diarrhea.

Whether you’ll enjoy Solondz’s sensibility to blend gratuitous humor and striking, deadpan cinematic style, in this case slow motion and classical music as he pans across the stained floors and carpets, is entirely subjective. Sometimes he holds these visuals just long enough to make it laughably uncomfortable, and other times his awkward distance gets the better of him, including a fairly ugly joke at the end that’s simply in bad taste.

But some of “Wiener-Dog’s” high points have little to do with the dog. Greta Gerwig, who’s perfectly perky and pathetic, plays Dawn Wiener, a veterinary assistant who runs off with the animal and names it Doody. She then agrees to leave her life and travel with a stoic, handsome drifter (Kieran Culkin) she knew from high school. This chapter has surprising depth, and even finds in Dawn some hope for a new beginning. Solondz killed off Dawn Wiener in one of his earlier films, “Palindromes,” and here he accomplishes an optimistic rewrite.

Then there’s Danny DeVito as the nebbish, no talent loser Dave Schmerz, a film school professor at NYU who can’t get someone to even look at his screenplay and doesn’t get any respect from his students. Solondz could’ve made a whole film about these snobby film students you’ll just love to hate. But DeVito’s solemn performance, him constantly straining for words and conviction, brings the film back to its themes of atrophy, depression and loneliness.

As for the film’s final chapter, a meeting between the elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn) sporting gigantic black visors and a DGAF attitude and her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), it’s hard to know what to make of a scene so bizarre. These people may belong to another universe entirely, but it’s the ideal culmination to a film so amusingly erratic.

Where you stand on “Wiener-Dog’s” final gag may just determine how you feel about Solondz’s entire filmography. And while this isn’t Solondz’s best or worst, the film’s irreverence is made meaningful and special because of his awkward charms. If Solondz were going to make any movie about a dog, it’d be hard to imagine it working as well with anything other than this dog.

3 stars

Frances Ha

“Frances Ha” touches on the same generational dilemmas of modern millenials in the same way as “Girls,” but does so with its own style and originality.

Does 27 feel old? 23-years-old, which I’ll be in a week, is starting to feel that way: too young to really have forged a career in this day and age, yet too far out of school to still be coasting.

So it must feel ancient for someone like Frances (Greta Gerwig), the title character of “Frances Ha,” who is rapidly approaching that of a mature failure, but still feels young enough to be figuring things out. Noah Baumbach’s film captures the generational feel of modern millenials, much the same themes as Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” but does so in a way that feels fresh and personal.

Frances might just be a female Woody Allen surrogate for a new generation. Baumbach and Gerwig’s dialogue often feels like vintage “Hannah and Her Sisters,” with four-way conversations surrounding a dinner table that touch on joblessness, hipster poverty and casual hook-up culture in all the best ways, and all of it happening a mile a minute. Continue reading “Frances Ha”

Damsels in Distress

“Damsels in Distress” is like an art house “Mean Girls.” It’s about a foursome of college girls who are insufferably quirky and manufactured indie cute instead of the usual cliché catty. They look at every thing with sunny optimism and act to help crazy, depressed and stupid people from suicide. But the movie is so wrapped up in its own craziness that it ends up being about nothing at all.

As soon as the movie begins, Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke) flank a new, timid girl on the first day of college orientation. This girl in need of their help and friendship is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who starts off as a normal human being but changes when she quickly realizes her new friends are cut from a different cloth.

Their speech sounds bookish and scripted, and their voices are rigid and without normal inflection. They use vocab heavy expressions like “youth outreach,” “golden oldie,” “only numerically,” “vulgarity is in essence blasphemous” and most notably of all, “Playboy Operator.” When Lily asks about the frat houses on campus, it turns out traditional slang, like “Greeks,” is also foreign to them, but that can be excused because their campus only has houses with Roman letters.

They operate a suicide prevention center in which they encourage depressed people to tap dance and eat donuts. Violet wants to start a new dance craze like the Charleston or Twist, but it turns out she’s an emotionally damaged orphan and is struggling with relationship problems.

The problem with these characters is that they’re hypocritical. They’re just as damaged and crazy as the people they aim to help, so this level of sunny optimism has never sounded more condescending. But the movie tries to write this off as intentional, firstly because Violet isn’t depressed, she’s just “in a tailspin,” and secondly because she doesn’t see why suffering from a fault prevents you from criticizing it in others.

But it’s a cheat, and “Damsels in Distress” seems to break its own silly rules at will. They aim to date frat boys, preferably moronic ones so they can improve them, but claim to resist the urges of other handsome men. It seems as if they carry a specific kind of odor. They also object to institutions and elitism found in the school newspaper, but they celebrate the frat houses and argue there is a difference. The movie isn’t really sure what these girls believe but knows it should be offbeat and quirky.

“Damsels and Distress” plays like a perpetual eye roll. It is exhausting semantics and word play for its own sake. The movie is directed by Whit Stillman, who is called a precursor to both Mike Leigh and Wes Anderson and certainly borrows other pages from Woody Allen. But Stillman lacks the realism in Leigh, the visual bravura in Anderson and the endearing wit of Allen. It’s unlikely that the three of them combined could put out something this insufferable.

1 ½ stars

To Rome With Love

“To Rome With Love” is a disappointing follow-up to Woody Allen’s delightful “Midnight in Paris.”

Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” is a movie about living out your fantasies of love and discovery. Its stories aren’t likely, so it’s a fantasy of its own, but not in the way of “Midnight in Paris.” Rather, it’s like the warm and gooey dream that feels embarrassingly stupid after you wake up.

In the last few years, Allen has made a trilogy of films in Europe, first in Barcelona, then in Paris and now the Italian Eternal City of Rome. The first problem is that this feels more like a travelogue than any of the others. It invites you into the city and makes time for sightseeing and an admiration of architecture, but then it makes its native Italians into goofy caricatures.

We see Romans as adulterers, Communists, sex craved, tabloid craved, wanderers with no sense of direction and angry mothers brandishing butcher knives.

The movie itself has this two-handed approach to its fantasies. “To Rome With Love” simultaneously tries to pull you toward and away from the romance of the story. The four anecdotes it tells are too dopey to be taken seriously and too familiar and incidental to really laugh at. Continue reading “To Rome With Love”