Why I love Mike Mills’ ’20th Century Women’

At one point in Mike Mills’ Academy Award nominated movie “20th Century Women,” one of its characters, Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), takes polaroids of all the objects she owns (which consists of bras, underwear, lipstick, shoes, birth control pills and a photograph of a photograph of her mother) as an attempt to capture a self portrait of herself.

It doesn’t quite capture the human who owns them, but these snapshots, like Mills’ film, try to capture the fleeting self-realization of a person at a moment in time.

Abbie’s artwork is described as “really beautiful” and “a little bit sad” — adjectives that also apply to what Mills has achieved with his stylized semi-autobiographical fictional film “20th Century Women.”

If the polaroids are “20th Century Women,” then Mills is Abbie — its writer and director. But whereas Abbie is trying to capture a portrait of just herself, Mills tasked himself with an even more impossible endeavor — creating a snapshot of himself and his strong, independent, witty, Depression and World War II-era, Humphrey Bogart-loving mother. 

To help him, Mills recruited Annette Bening, whose fantastic as the fictionalized version of Mills’ mother, Dorothea Fields, a 55-year-old single mother in the 1970s who wanted to give her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) the world and raise him to be a good person who’s happier than she was.

To raise her kid, she recruited a village: her tenants William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie; and Jamie’s 17-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). The women loan Jamie feminist books and punk mix tapes and try to teach him how to be a man with lessons about female orgasms, how to verbally seduce an older woman, how to say “menstruation,” how to smoke and look cool, how to like and dance to the Talking Heads and how to not get beat up by guys who don’t want to listen.

Through these “20th Century Women,” Jamie learns things they don’t explicitly tell him: he learns how to listen, how to care, how to be sensitive and vulnerable and sweet and really be there — attributes women want that are not usually associated with a man.

Who Jamie becomes is what Dorothea achieves, answering Jamie’s inquisitive questions with wisdoms like “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”; “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world”; and “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed.”

Dorothea is amazing just like Mills’ mother must have been. But while words and polaroids aren’t enough to fully bring someone back to life, “20th Century Women,” Mills’ retrospective love letter to his mom, is pretty close.

“20th Century Woman” was directed and written by Mike Mills. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original  screenplay. 

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Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”

How the ’13th’ Amendment of United States perpetuated modern-day slavery

The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution was taught as a law of liberation: the one that freed slaves from servitude; however, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix-original documentary, “13th,” reminds us that the blade that protects us can also maim us.

Yes, the 13th Amendment proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States,” but the amendment also provided an exception — a clause that calls slavery by another name and makes it perfectly legal.

Inserted within the fine print of the 13th Amendment is the clause that explains how African Americans are still persecuted today. Convicted criminals don’t received the protection of the 13th Amendment. And so the 13th Amendment became a economic and political weapon that ensnared blacks through mass incarcerations.

DuVernay enlists the help of activists, historians and politicians to explain more than 150 years of American history. Interviews with figures like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Angela Davis, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel, Van Jones and Cory Booker explain how blacks continue to be criminalized.

“13th” is a disturbing and sometimes overwhelming portrait of how people of color have been wronged, but more frightening still, is how people of color continued to face persecution through legislation and the media. Stereotypes perpetuated in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” have been mirrored in modern political ads and news segments. However, like how a blade can simultaneously maim and protect, DuVernay also offers a weapon for the Eric Garners, Philando Castilles, Sandra Blands, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants and Emmett Tills. 

Only media and technology can change the narrative.

“13th” was written by Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. DuVernay’s film “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.  

‘The Lobster’: a bizarre satire of loneliness

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” is a piece of performance art exploring the meaning of love.

Written by Greek writers Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, “The Lobster” is about a series of bizarre rituals in a dystopian society where uncoupled humans are harvested for blood and body parts and then transformed to spend the rest of their lives as an animal of their choice.

Couples get to live in the city and grow old together, but when a couple divorces or when a mate dies, their partners are checked into a painful purgatory of sorts.

That’s where this painstakingly long two-hour film begins: with David (Colin Farrell), a man recently separated from his wife of nearly 12 years.

Without time to grieve, David’s immediately checked into the hotel — where hospitality staff strip him of his clothing and monitor his moves.

Singles and couples are segregated here with couples on tennis courts and yachts while singles are quarantined to other single-designated areas. The catch: singles must find a partner with a similar physical feature within 45 days or else they will be forced to spend the rest of their lives as an animal.

Even if that isn’t enough pressure to find a suitable mate, singles are forced to watch propaganda on why coupledom is better. A wife can rescue a man from choking to death while a husband can protect a women from being raped.

Lanthimos film is a disconcerting journey because for much of the film, you feel lost — wandering a world without knowing its rules. The voice of your all-knowing narrator (Rachel Weisz) seems more focussed on bizarre details like the color of David’s shoes than helping you understand. Just when you begin to get your bearings though, you hear three unnerving cords that make your whole body tense.

“The Lobster” is a frustrating experience — as if you were a puppet guided by a cruel and whimsical god. This one, Lanthimos, sends your ship to whirlpools and sharp rocks. You survive and persevere, somehow, but even if loneliness isn’t torturous enough, perhaps love is just as absurd.

“The Lobster” was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.    

The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

‘The Hurt Locker’ houses the horrors of war

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” would be predictable as a horror movie. You come in expecting monsters to jump out of the closet and for the most part, that’s what you get.

But still, you watch with a sense of foreboding.

“The Hurt Locker’s” monsters appear in broad daylight when the sun is beating down your neck. They hide under ground and under cars and strapped to the flesh of human bodies. They’re the stuff of nightmares that haunt grown men and women even after they’re far away from war.

And worse yet, they’re real.

The monsters I’m referring to, of course, are the improvised explosive devices that have killed thousands of soldiers over the years. As of 2013, more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers were dead or wounded from IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bigelow shows us these casualties with grainy, distorted video. The feet of women and children scampering across crowded roads. The hums from tanks and the honks of cars. It feels like we’re too close up to see the full picture, and in some ways we are.

“The Hurt Locker,” written by Iraq war journalist Mark Boal, follows a small U.S. bomb dissembling unit in Bagdad, 2004. They spend their aldrenaline-filled days counting bombs they’re dissembled, times they’ve almost died, and the number of days before they can return home.

This gets much more complicated when the group welcomes a new sergeant, William James (Jeremy Renner), the devil-may-care Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer who has trouble following Sgt. Sanborn’s (Anthony Mackie) orders.

This adds much more tension to a mentally and physically draining film. As you’re watching men dissemble bombs with the precision of neurosurgeons, you’re hands ball into fists and your fingernails dig half-moon crescents into the meaty part of your palm.

This next second could be the one where a guy with a burner cell phone fires an IED. This next minute could be the one when another U.S. soldier returns home in a coffin wrapped with an American flag.

I can’t tell you that no one dies in this film. People do — both physically and psychologically — killing men, marriages and the mind. But even though “The Hurt Locker” hurts to watch, it’s worth watching.

Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” does what television did with the Vietnam war: it gives you a greater understanding of the horrors.

“The Hurt Locker” was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. The film won 2010 Academy Awards for best original score, best achievement in cinematography, best achievement in sound editing, best achievement in sound mixing, best achievement in film editing, best original screenplay, best achievement in directing and best motion picture of the year. 

 

Defining the ‘Terms of Endearment’

The terms are tough love. The kind where you wake up your baby because you think she’s dead. The kind where you tell your daughter that it’d be a mistake to marry her fiancee the night before her wedding. The kind where you complain that you can’t be a grandmother when your daughter says she’s pregnant with her first child.

But even when those are the terms, it’s not hard to see the love between Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma Horton (Debra Winger).

Written and directed by James L. Brooks based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, “Terms of Endearment” (1983) is a wonderful film about life and love. At the heart of the film is a mother and daughter duo.

Aurora’s a surly Texas widow who spends her pastime complaining to her daughter and entertaining boring gentlemen suitors.

Her daughter Emma, on the other hand, is full of youthful optimism. When Emma marries her husband, Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), and moves away to Des Moines, Iowa, their relationship evolves from that of a mother and daughter to that of friends. Emma begins settling in her role as a stay-at-home mom of two boys and a girl, while Aurora begins eying her neighbor, a promiscuous drunken astronaut by the name of Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). As distance makes the heart grow fonder, they become each other’s lifeline, trading gossip, advice and insults over the years.

MacLaine and Winger are wonderful as Aurora and Emma, reflecting the natural animosity between a mother and daughter. “I always think of us as fighting,” says Aurora.

And sure they fight — as most families do, but love powers each punch.

Aurora’s hard frown and cold stare are met with Emma’s open admiration and search for approval.

“Get yourself a decent maternity dress,” Aurora fires when Emma catches her mother letting go of their hug first.

Despite the underhanded comments, there’s a natural symbiosis in their relationship. Emma is the first person Aurora calls when she wants to talk about her next-door neighbor. Emma stays at Aurora’s house for a couple days when she encounters marital problems. And most importantly, when there’s a common enemy, they’re batting for each other.

“Terms of Endearment” is a sentimental film that will make you both laugh and cry. Perhaps you see yourself as the mother or daughter. Or perhaps your dad challenged with you a similar tough upbringing. Whatever the terms are, Brooks’ film will make you want to hold your loved ones just a little tighter as you go to bed tonight.

“Terms of Endearment” was written and directed by James L Brooks based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. It won the 1984 Academy Award for best picture. Shirley MacLaine won best actress for her leading role and Jack Nicholson won best actor for a supporting role. Brooks was best director and best screenplay based on another medium. 

 

 

‘The Broadway Melody’ sounds out of tune

Opening the 65th annual Tony Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris sang a showstopping number about the status of Broadway: “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore!”

His tongue-in-cheek song signifies how the tune of Broadway has changed from its golden era of “The Broadway Melody” (1929) to its current clientele: “the gays and the Jews; and cousins-in-from-out-of-town that you have to amuse.”

The changing lifestyles and viewpoints might explain why the familiar, melodramatic storyline of “The Broadway Melody” sounds sour. Although the film won the second annual Academy Award for best picture in 1930, the overplayed storyline (written by playwright Edmund Goulding, Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason) is trite and oversimplified.

Directed by Harry Beaumont, “The Broadway Melody” stars Anita Page and Bessie Love as sisters, Hank and Queenie Mahoney. Like Katharine McPhee’s character in NBC’s cancelled television series “Smash,” Hank and Queenie have dreams of stardom: to sing and dance on Broadway, playing back-up dancer to Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King).

Like “Smash,” this tale stars drama, jealousy and ego; however, this “Broadway” isn’t synonymous with a “broad’s way.” Men make the rules and Hank and Queenie have to fight for one spot: to be the leading lady in Eddie Kearn’s life. After all, his leading lady gets to star behind him — both on and off stage.

If anything, “The Broadway Melody” got its award for its production value at the time. The film was MGM’s first musical and its among the world’s first talkies. This one was complete with “bigger” song-and-dance numbers than anything before 1929.

There’s even long tap dancing sequences.

But life isn’t a musical and we’re not charmed by neither the film’s formulaic script nor its dated production. Instead, we’re wishing for “better” rather than “bigger.”

“The Broadway Melody” was directed by Harry Beaumont and written by Edmund Goulding, Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason. The film won Best Picture in the second annual Academy Awards. 

‘Wild’s’ one big leap for womankind

When “Wild” begins, we’re greeted by Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) scream from the top of a mountain. She has a prominent bruise on one of her legs and is missing one of her toenails, but those aren’t the only things that mars her. Her journey up that mountain was a sort of personal atonement — the reconciliation she needed in order to absolve herself.

That’s the story Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (of the “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) creates with his 115-minute film, “Wild.” Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film (whose script is penned by author Nick Hornby) is a sort of docu-drama. Witherspoon plays Strayed, a likable girl setting on a personal quest for redemption.

Along the way, Mother Nature beats her up. She loses toenails, boots and a string of condoms as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by her lonesome. Meanwhile, she’s forced to confront some of harshest truths about her past. Among them: grieving for her mother’s (Laura Dern) death.

“Wild” is a long film. For almost two hours, we’re largely left alone with Reese Witherspoon as a companion. She’s personable and unassuming, but like her, we feel the repetitiveness of the hike. Each minute is a chore. The backpack is heavy on our backs. The hot desert sun is burning our skin. The taste of cold mush is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, we’re running out of water.

It’s as if Vallée has a running tally on the screen: Strayed vs. Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is winning by a longshot. Day one: Strayed carries a backpack more than half her size. Day two: she discovers that she bought the wrong fuel for the stove she packed. Day 30: she encounters snow.

Of course, those aren’t the only roadblocks on the road less traveled. There are multiple times when we think Strayed will either be raped or injured. She looks honest and vulnerable. A man tells her to wait in his van.

Meanwhile, Witherspoon mutters a litany of swear words with each step. “Remember, you can quit at any time,” she reminds herself.

She doesn’t. Strayed’s a survivor, persevering beyond stereotypes. Her walk is symbolic and empowering — as if one small step is one big leap for womankind.

“Wild” was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed memoir. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress in the 87th Academy Awards and the 72nd annual Golden Globe Awards for her performance in the film. 

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’: the tale of girlhood

Last month, Dr. Sharon Marcus and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky wrote a through-provoking piece examining Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film, “Boyhood.” Their Wall Street Journal article argued that “while boyhood is filled with possibility, girlhood is limiting.”

This is evident in Iso Takahata’s poignant hand-drawn animated Oscar contender “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” — a Studio Ghibli production produced over the past five years. While “Boyhood” feels very real, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a fabricated fable about a celestial being who came under the care of a couple of peasants — a bamboo-cutter named Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Okina thinks the tiny Thumbelina he found in a bamboo shoot is destined to be a princess, so he does everything in his power to raise her like a daughter and to give her a better life. This includes moving the “Princess” away from their rural village and into the city. Okina even hires a private tutor (Atsuko Takahata) to teach her.

Based on the Japanese folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Takahata’s film shows how a girl’s options are limited. “A noble princess does not frolic,” Kaguya’s tutor, Lady Sagami, tells her. A noble princess doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even attend her own naming ceremony (that’s a three-night celebration for men like her adopted father — whom dictate her path).

“I might as well not be here,” Kaguya expresses.

Instead, a noble princess is expected to look beautiful and marry well. Her beauty attracts the attention of five noblemen, each asking for her hand.

This is very different from the choices “Boyhood’s” Mason is given. For him, the sky’s the limit. For her, her only decisions revolve around marriage.

Although Kaguya is a resourceful heroine, she confined as she grows up. Initially, we see a cherubic and carefree baby, amused by nature. She captures a frog. She befriends baby swine. She’s charmed by the wind blowing and the cherry blossoms. We even see her swinging on a vine with the rural neighborhood’s lost boys, led by their Peter Pan/Robin Hood, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora). But her laughter and smile disappears as she’s forced to adapt to humans’ inhumane definition of beauty.

That’s a beautiful and illuminating lesson — as hard to watch as Takahata’s 1988 WWII piece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Bring the tissues.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was written by Iso Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi and directed by Takahata. The film was nominated Best Animated Film in the 87th Academy Awards.