Short Review: 20th Century Women

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I can imagine what a negative review of 20th Century Women would say. I can imagine someone making the argument that the movie is nothing but a male fantasy about the awesomeness of women, and about how three generations of strong females turn a young boy into a man. I can imagine such an argument, because we’ve seen movies that look like 20th Century Women falter in exactly those areas. They settle for a condescending male point of view, and relegate their female characters to the role of manic-pixie-dream-girl and wise motherly figure. This is not such a movie. This is so much better than that.

Mike Mills, who broke through with Beginnersa lovely memoir about his father, now makes a lovely memoir about his formative years alongside his mother. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a woman who grew up during the depression and now raises a son (Lucas Jade Zunmann) in late-seventies Santa Barbara. Fearing the lack of a strong male presence in her son’s life, she recruits the help of two other women. Abby (Greta Gerwig), a post-punk photographer who rents a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the best friend who Dorothea’s son hopes would become “something more”. These women are not supporting characters to the boy’s growth as a person. They are real characters, with inner lives, desires, conflicts and flaws.

There are five main characters in the movie (the other being another room-renter played by Billy Crudup), and they are all treated with respect and complexity. The biggest strength of 20th Century Women might very well be how generous it is toward them. It is a fresh and breezy movie, that manages to pack an acute sentimental punch inside its visions of pleasurable sunny California. There are moments in the movie (such as an intimate role-playing session between Gerwig and Crudup) that jump back and forth between comedy and tragedy in a way that only a person with a deep interest in human life could pull off.

Every character in this magnificent cast gets their chance to shine, but none of them shines brighter than Bening’s Dorothea. Turning what is essentially an ode to his mother into an ensemble piece is one of the director’s most brilliant choices. Bening shines when interacting with other performers, revealing intense amounts of information in every interaction her character has with the people who populate her household. The easy, natural vibe of Bening’s performance binds the movie together. We don’t need to be told that Dorothea is a formidable woman, we experience it ourselves. 20th Century Women is a lovely experience of humanist filmmaking at its best, and if that weren’t enough, it serves as a reminder that one of our greatest living actresses is still turning out some of her best work.

Grade: 9 out of 10

Stomping the Ground: A Review of Sean Baker’s ‘Tangerine’

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The first thing most people learned about Tangerine, the latest film by director Sean Baker (Starlet), was that it was shot on an iPhone. From the information I’ve gathered it is pretty clear that this is not the first movie to have been entirely shot using a phone, but it’s certainly the highest profile one – which is saying a lot considering Tangerine is a micro-budget independent production. So yeah, the image quality in Tangerine can be grainy and jerky in scenes with lots of movement, but the iPhone aesthetic is particularly well suited for the story of the very hectic Christmas Eve of two Los Angeles trans prostitutes.

Our protagonists are Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from a 28-day stint in jail, and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Just seconds into the movie, while sharing a donut with her now free friend, Alexandra lets slip the fact that Sin-dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her with a woman who is not only white, but has a vagina; or as Sin-dee refers to her, “a white fish”. It’s a revelation that not only puts the plot in motion, but kickstarts it by blasting electronic hip-hop as Sin-dee stomps through the streets of L.A. trying to find, and smack the shit out of, this woman.

As shot by Baker, L.A. looks like an over-saturated mess, bathed in colors as extreme as the garish music he chooses to score most of the scenes, and as hyperactive as his camera, which swoops and rushes around his characters as they make their way through their day-long odyssey. The low-fi aesthetic makes the movie feel ultra-realistic, sharing frame rates and camera angles with documentary filmmaking, but Baker’s high-strung directing also makes it seem otherworldly, like we’ve entered territory we had never visited before.

In a sense, that’s actually true. The number of movies with trans protagonists is frankly pathetic, especially when it comes to featuring characters who don’t spend most of the running time self-hating and bemoaning the fact that their bodies don’t match their desires. Sin-dee and Alexandra are refreshing because they are so self-assured and aware of their reality. They are, of course, affected by the stigma that still comes with identifying as trans in this world, but they don’t let the struggle be the only thing that defines them. Sin-dee, in particular, will scream and shout and not stop until she gets her revenge.

The buzz for Tangerine coming off its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival was quite ecstatic. People went in curious about the iPhone factor, and came out raving about one of the most energetic and refreshing independent comedies in years. The positive responses, paired with the underrepresented subject matter had me supremely excited about the movie, which makes it all the more disappointed that, despite admiring what it sets out to do, I can’t really recommend the movie without addressing some really big reservations.

My first problem comes from the fact that I just don’t think Tangerine is very funny. Baker seems to have gone off to try to capture something realistic and truthful with this film. The simplicity of working with a phone seems to have allowed for him to create a particularly close and intimate environment for the actors, who seem to be fairly inexperienced. I certainly know the two leads were. The leads, Taylor in particular, do notably well in the more poignant scenes, but they are not trained comedic improvisers, and thus, seem to struggle with the on-the-spot creation of funny dialogue.

Surely they’re not helped by Baker’s comedic set pieces, which are most of the time predictable and tired. A sequence with an Armenian taxi driver (Karren Karagulian) disappointingly cruising through the neighborhood, for example, goes on for minutes to reveal a payoff we knew was coming from the minute the sequence started. In fact, that scene is symptomatic of Tangerine‘s erratic rhythms. It’s surprising that as energetic and forward-moving a movie as this one can have so much dead weight.

Tangerine clocks in at only 83 minutes, and I still felt like it was longer that it should have been. There is a lot of business going on, but little really happens in the movie. Baker indulges in montages of his characters walking through the streets as if he was trying to make this story into a feature-length movie. It’s as if he didn’t know how to spend the time he has with his protagonists, instead focusing in a parade of uninteresting supporting characters, like the aforementioned taxi driver, whose story takes up almost half the movie and is practically inconsequential to our main narrative, except for the fact that Baker wants to use him to heighten the craziness of the third act confrontation.

The last scene in Tangerine reveals a much sweeter and thoughtful movie than the eighty minutes that preceded it. It’s a weird little vignette of intimacy and friendship that reveals the nuances and shared lives of the women that exist behind the character’s sass. It’s too sad that the rest of the movie doesn’t trust in exploring the characters, but instead settles for lots of dazzle and cheap comedy.

Grade: 6 out of 10

1995 Project: Kicking and Screaming

kicking and screaming2015 might go down in the history books as the year I officially became a Noah Baumbach fan. Don’t be afraid, I’m not delusional, I’m talking about my personal history. Although there is nothing delusional about loving Baumbach’s films. First, it was the supremely enjoyable While We’re Young, then I rediscovered why I reacted so profoundly when I first saw The Squid and the Whale as a teenager. Now that I’ve seen his directorial debut Kicking and Screaming, I’m ready to proclaim him one of the most astute observers of human behavior working today.

It might be the fact that Baumbach’s characters, and their problems, tend to tap into some very dark and vulnerable parts of my own personality, but even if you can’t exactly relate to the problems of this bunch of white dudes, you can certainly recognize the level of scrutiny and detail in the way Baumbach molds these characters. Kicking and Screaming shares quite a bit of DNA with the bourgeois intellectual work of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, and was unfairly ignored (both by audiences and critics) during its initial release. It wasn’t until Squid and the Whale that Baumbach broke through as an important figure in American cinema, and not until Criterion released the movie on DVD in 2006, that Kicking and Screaming was rediscovered and given the reputation it deserves. I will never understand how a movie as specific as this one could be so easily dismissed.

Well, actually, I kind of do. You just have to read a plot summary of the thing. So you don’t have to leave this page, let me provide a quick one: Kicking and Screaming is basically the story of a group of college graduates who realize they must escape their ivory tower and enter the real world, and find ways to retreat to their immature behavior (or to not graduate at all) thanks to their growing insecurities. I know it sounds familiar, and if I had provided bits from the movie’s clever dialogue, you might have mistaken it for yet another independent movie about talking twenty-somethings. But this is so much more than that. One of Baumbach’s biggest strengths as a director is that, while he never abandons his sense of humor and always shows empathy towards his characters, he doesn’t shy away from giving in to the more unpleasant parts of his characters’ personalities.

What most dumb movies about talking twenty-somethings lack is self-awareness, which Kicking and Screaming has in spades. It’s not that these other movies aren’t truthful to what it’s like being a twenty-something, it’s that they refuse to examine said existence beyond the way the characters (and by proxy the filmmaker) feel. Yes, there are plenty college graduates that spend their time having pseudo-intellectual conversations and waxing poetic about trivial nostalgia items, but Baumbach is not just presenting this, he is trying to understand why that is the case. There is no other way to put it. These young men are trapped up their own asses, but by giving us the full picture of why they say and do so many stupid shit, we don’t end up judging them, but understanding them.

Never mind the superficial differences, the biggest thing Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach have in common is that their movies feel like a therapy session. These directors are extrapolating and exploring their inner self and the understanding of their surroundings by testing them in front of an audience. Sure, the test is technically fiction, but the testing is relentless. Such explorations of personality can feel like a manifestation of narcissistic self-hate in the hands of other directors *ahem* Birdman *ahem*; Baumbach’s miracle is that he manages to be both merciless and compassionate to his characters. He is not displaying the deep flaws of characters as pieces of dirty laundry, he is trying to work through them.

The past decade has seen lots of writing be dedicated to figuring out the prevalence of the “man-child” in American mainstream media. That guy who refuses to grow up and mature out of his pubescent ways. Kicking and Screaming becomes even more valuable when seen through that prism. The difference between an Adam Sandler character and the protagonist of this movie is that there is no glorification of immaturity here. It is not treated as capital-P problem either. It’s just a reality. It’s just something that happens. One of the many effects privilege has on white men across the world, and thankfully, something they can work through.

The release of Mistress America can’t come soon enough.