20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

The Disappointments Room


Kate Beckinsale reflects.

Kate Beckinsale reflects.

(2016) Supernatural Thriller (Rogue/Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Michael Landes, Celia Weston, Michaela Conlin, Charles Carroll, Duncan Joiner, Ella Jones, Marcia de Rousse, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Melissa Eastwood, Robert McRary, Chris Matheny, Mike Bizon, Peabody Southwell, Steve Stamey, Robert Caponi, Rebecca Kerns. Directed by D.J. Caruso

 

When you move someplace new, exploring your new digs is half the fun, especially if it’s one of those wonderful old houses with long corridors and lots of doors. However, it is wise to remember that in some old houses, some doors shouldn’t be opened.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) have just moved into one such house. They’re trying to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of an infant daughter. Dana, in particular, is a bit of a mess but David figures that having her redesign her new home (she is an architect, after all) might help take her mind off of things and lift her out of her doldrums.

But then she finds a door to a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the floor plans, which is kind of bizarre because the room has a distinctive round window that can be seen clearly from the yard. But, okay – she is almost obsessed about opening the door and eventually she finds the key. The room has scratch marks, a drain and some disturbing looking stains that might be blood.

She begins to have visions of an intimidating man in black who turns out to be Judge Blacker (McRaney), a previous owner, and his vicious looking dog. Disturbed by the visions, she looks into the room and discovers that it was what was called a “Disappointments Room” where the wealthy would lock up their children who had mental issues or physical deformities (and sometimes their wives too – yes, disappointments rooms were a thing). When she is trapped in the hidden room for what seems like hours, she is mystified to discover she was only gone a few short minutes. Her sanity begins to take a tumble.

Not making matters much better is a hunky contractor (Till) who seems more interested in flirting with her than in actually getting the roof fixed nor a poorly timed dinner party when a drunken Dana pops her cork and has an epic meltdown. But the question is whether or not the house is truly haunted – or if Dana is descending into madness.

Caruso has a track record of both terrific suspense movies and also some fine action films but this is one that isn’t going to be front and center on his resume. The movie feels like it went off the rails near the end of the film, having either been rewritten from the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (who doesn’t appear in the film, alas) or was edited by someone at the studio’s nephew who turns out to be completely psychotic.

But the rest of the movie does a good job of building the “is she or isn’t she” suspense and Beckinsale was born for this kind of role, where she has to play things high strung. She’s a marvelous actor, horribly underrated who has a history of excellent but overlooked performances in genre films. She’s starting to branch out lately (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is one such) and hopefully she’ll start to see roles that will attract more notice. Here she really holds the movie together almost by herself, but as I said the movie spirals into the toilet bowl of doom through no fault of her own.

The problem here is that that the movie kind of loses its inertia and at the end goes for cliches and easy scares rather than taking the ball it had been carrying all game long and running for the touchdown with it. And yes, that’s an intentional mixed metaphor; that perfectly explains how the movie felt to me.

This was a victim of the Relativity Media bankruptcy; it was in limbo for more than a year while the company sorted through its financial issues. It was actually supposed to open in November but for some reason the company pulled Before I Sleep from the schedule with less than two weeks to go and inserted this into the slot, shuttling it into theaters without any sort of promotional support whatsoever. Predictably, it died a quiet and painful death at the box office. It didn’t help matters that the movie is mediocre at best, but it seems sad that this is going to be a pretty decent performance by Beckinsale that will largely go unseen. That’s the big disappointment here.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale elevates the movie as she usually does.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is often confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (some of it bloody), some disturbing images, a bit of foul language and a couple of scenes of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the main location shooting was the Adamsleigh estate in the Sedgefield Country Club outside Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was built in 1930.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Husband
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sully

Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50