Tag Archives: United States

20th Century Women (2017)

2 Feb

What exactly does it mean to please a women? This is one of many questions Jaime (Lucas Zumann) asks his mother in the sharply-detailed period drama 20th Century Women Jaime, as we first see him, is caught at a bit of a crossroads, and is trying to find his natural place in the world. Growing up solely under the care of his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in late 70’s Santa Barbara California, the world is a confusing place. Especially so during adolescence, when punk rock, feminism, drugs, and pregnancy scares become guiding forces in Jaime’s life. “He needs a strong male influence” Dorothea says, “We need another man in this house..” Enter William (Billy Crudup), a friend and occasional lover of Dorothea who works on renovating the house in exchange for free rent. Then there is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jaime’s best friend who sleeps with (but never sleeps with) him some nights and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the art school tennant who is recovering from cancer. These five characters (and the house they share together, their interactions with American culture and counterculture, and their experiences with love and sexuality) are what make up the backbone for 20th Century Women. 

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), 20th Century Women tells a breezy, patchwork narrative that feels authentically lifted straight from someone’s personal photo album of 40 years. The film is a pure snapshot of American 70’s culture, given to us through our eclectic set of characters – each with their own set of internal and external struggles. Formally, things get slightly experimental at times, fusing documentary footage from various historical events interspersed with dramatic scenes shot at higher or lower framerates or with blaring psychedelic colors. The plot jumps around from moment to moment and character to character so frequently which creates more of a specific aesthetic of time and place than any sort of dramatic tension.  At every opportunity, a different cultural beat is featured – though they are often simply given to us straight from a character’s retrospective voiceover. “We didn’t know that the Reagan era was just around the corner, or that AIDS would soon be a scary word…”  Dorothea explains near the end of the film, over a montage of B-roll news footage. All this culminates to form a nostalgic tribute to the value of shared American cultural experiences.

Bottom Line: When taken as a whole, 20th Century Women might miss the dramatic heights it was aiming for, but the many detailed, smaller moments of this film feel intensely relatable, excitingly alive, and sharply authentic. 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Boyhood + Diary of a Teenage Girl + A touch of Dazed and Confused

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Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

24 Sep

He wasn’t an actor, athlete, politician, scientist, writer, artist, or musician, but Bobby Fisher was one of the biggest celebrities of his time. The chess prodigy was known for his enigmatic and explosive personality, but he helped popularize the game for millions of Americans. Pawn Sacrifice, directed by Ed Zwick, tells the story of Bobby (Tobey Maguire), mostly focusing on his infamous match against the Russian world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

Zwick keeps things at a pretty tight pace the first half of the film, where we are introduced to Bobby as a child and soon learn about his impeccable talent for visualizing moves both on and off the chessboard. Later in life, we see Bobby’s rising concerns and soviet paranoia consume his personality, as he is introduced to lawyer Paul Marshal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who convinces him to play the Russians as an act of patriotism. Under the wing of his mentor/chess coach Father Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby tries to push aside his inner distractions and focus all his mental energy into becoming the new world champion. It’s in the film’s latter half that things begin to fall apart and the film’s flaws become magnified.

The plot steeps into familiar territory more than once and seems to fall back on formulaic biopic tropes just when things get interested.  Written by Steven Knight, Christopher Wilkinson, and Stephen J. Rivele, the script grasps at many different ideas (the nature of genius, the importance of nationalism, paranoia, and privacy in the Watergate era) but the film feels so disjointed and choppy that they never materialize into much.

The big shining star here is Maguire’s unhinged performance. Easily one of the year’s best, Maguire perfectly captures the intriguing mannerisms and dimensionality of such a complex and interesting character (a comparison with the real life Bobby’s speech patterns is remarkable), and his fierce unpredictability keeps things feeling fresh when the rest of the film gets predictably stale.

An avid chess fan myself, I kept wanting the film to explore the fascinating nature of the game in relation to it’s passion characters. The overarching problem with Pawn Sacrifice is that it’s characters are far too simple – a tragic misstep when considering they are involved in arguably the world’s most complicated game.

Bottom Line: With a career-best performance from Tobey Maguire, Pawn Sacrifice is a solid film, but the tension fizzles out too early and the drama never quite reaches the heights it should. 

 

Spidey channeling his inner rage

Rating: 6/10 

Film Recipe: Good Will Hunting + A Beautiful Mind + The Imitation Game + Freddie Quell from The Master 

Newlyweeds (2013)

20 Jan

So I just got back from seeing Newlyweeds, the first feature film by director Shaka King, at the Sundance Film Festival 2013.  The film, being tagged as “the stoner’s romantic comedy” is really anything unlike I have seen before.  Take one part feel-good comedy, one-part romantic drama, and one-part stoner/drug movie and you get something like this.  It really is just a mess of ideas, characters and events that somehow tae shape and provide an interesting conclusion when the film is done.

Newlyweeds is centered around an African-American couple named Lyle and Nina.  Nina works at a local museum, and Lyle at a appliance-rental service.  We watch as the highs and lows of their relationship culminate and crash while they puff their hard-earned cash away by constantly smoking weed.  And there is A LOT of weed-smoking in this movie.

Their relationship takes a turn when a figure named Chino comes into play and tries to get the attention of Nina.  Meanwhile, lyle is struggling with his job trying to find the balance between being a supportive boyfriend and maintaining his drug habits.

While it is a drama of sorts, there is a hefty amount of comedy that weaves its way in and out of the film (usually involving your typical jokes about marijuana), but the laughs never really take center stage like they should.  Instead the film focuses too much on building events that never really take off.  In return, this leaves the film anti-climatic and emotionless.

While the wonderful dialogue and acting give the film a truly authentic feel, there is really nothing going on in the script for me to pay close attention too. The film feels more like a collage of short episodes, rather than an over-arching narrative and the ending just feels flat and unpolished. It is worth seeing, but nothing remarkable.

 

rating 6/10 

 

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

14 Jan

The last film for me to see during this year’s awards season was Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty. After being a huge fan her previous best-picture winning war film The Hurt Locker, I had high expectations for this new thriller about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Most of them were fulfilled.

The film starts moments after the horrific events of 9/11 have taken place. The United States are in a state of shock and anger; the term “terrorism” has now established itself with being synonymous with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Jihad.  We are introduced to the film’s protagonist, Maya (played by the lovely Jessica Chastain), a new CIA recruit fresh out of high school who has been assigned to work with the interrogation of Al Qaeda members. Zero Dark Thirty revolves around this character as she tries to put together the complicated puzzle piece that eventually leads the US to Bin Laden.

Chastain plays a complicated and fierce female character who drives most of the plot.  Her performance, along with Bigelow’s understanding of the complicated story material, are what make Zero Dark Thirty a heavyweight contender for this years Best Picture Oscar.

While the film never quite reaches the suspenseful and emotional highs The Hurt Locker does, it is a very well-asembled and uncomfortably realistic film.  Like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is not geared towards the mainstream movie-going American audience of today.  There is nothing romanticized or sugar-coated about her depictions of conflict and torture, and most of the dialogue and high-level political speak will go above and beyond the average viewer’s comprehension (unless, of course you are a hardcore political or history junkie). Bigelow and her team went to great lengths to research and write-in the factual events the film is based off of, and regardless of weather or not the “facts” in the movie happened the way we see them, they still have a very prominent emotional impact on the viewer.

Despite the amount of international controversy a film like this could cause, Zero Dark Thirty stands out among other war films for it’s brutal realism and knock-out performances.  I’m hedging my bets on Chastain for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress.

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rating 7/10