“You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“And that’s how trees get planted!” Sarah Silverman at Caesars Windsor

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[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

“And that’s how trees get planted!” exclaimed comedian Sarah Silverman (last night at Caesars Windsor) at the end of a particularly funny bit about how squirrels misplace 80% of the nuts they hide every winter and how these adorable creatures’ manic, OCD, memory-challenged behavior must be an evolutionary development to ensure our lands remain appropriately forested.  The moment was less of a punchline to a joke and more of a personal epiphany that she just couldn’t NOT share with audiences far and wide. And it was priceless.

An hour-and-a-half of Silverman in person was much different than ten minutes of Silverman on a late night talk show. Coming off more like the lovechild of Rachel Maddow and Fanny Brice and less like Joan Rivers’ gross-out “mean girl” baby cousin, Silverman was delightfully and justifiably caustic yet accessibly and appropriately bewildered by a world that seems determined to dial back the clock to the Dark Ages.

Silverman is an avowed feminist (with a seemingly incongruous penchant for cocktail napkin jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1950s Moose Lodge), an ardent atheist (with a sister who has devoted her life to God as a rabbi in Jerusalem), and a fierce animal rights defender (who tells morbid jokes about whether or not she should put her dog to sleep now to save her and her pooch from a lifetime of pain). Like any successful comic, Silverman’s best material plays at the tension between affirmed values and the reality of living in a truly messed-up world.

Sarah Silverman at Caesars Windsor

Roy and John hit Caesars Windsor for Sarah Silverman

Her strongest material Saturday night eviscerated our sexist double standards, while simultaneously tromping around the very hypersexualized muck that doesn’t do anyone’s gender perceptions a darn bit of good. Her take on the absurdity of handing Barbie dolls to little girls and expecting any outcome other than “creating a generation of gold-diggers and whores” was as incisive as it was retrograde. I won’t spoil the jokes in that section; they didn’t necessarily cover any new territory (“Barbie’s feet are shaped so she can only wear high heels!”), but the delivery and the context were so sharp, so acidic, so damn funny that not one person in the Colosseum last night will ever look at a Barbie doll the same way (let alone give one as a gift). And that’s a good thing.

Surprisingly, Silverman didn’t address the current state of American politics directly, though everything she reviewed was political in one way or another. Homophobic Mike Pence and the State of Indiana got warranted derisive shout outs, and she paused once for a pointed aside, “Why isn’t Howard Stern talking about Trump? What is up with that?,” telegraphing more with what she didn’t say than what she did. (Silverman, a one-time Sanders supporter, won praise and critique for cutting through the chicanery at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by observing, “Can I say something? To the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people, you’re being ridiculous.”)

Her greatest subversions last night, however, were in marrying the personal and the political. Discussing her heritage as a Jewish woman growing up with an unfiltered father in New Hampshire, she noted that, while he had escaped the trauma of his abusive father in joyous summers spent as a camp counselor, he inadvertently tortured his own anxiety-ridden, chronically bed-wetting daughter (Sarah) by forcing her to continue the summer camp tradition in her youth.

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

Referencing her holier-than-thou (literally) rabbi sister, Silverman related a situation where her sister described nearly everything about an Ethiopian acquaintance Sarah would soon meet, except the fact that said friend had lost both hands in a land mine accident, something Sarah learned only when she awkwardly went to shake the woman’s … hook.

In an extensive discussion around Silverman’s own atheism and her passion for women’s reproductive rights, she referenced a benefit she performed in Texas. She crossed the street to talk to the protestors who were decrying her work, and she was met by a little girl who hissed “God hates YOU!” Silverman pondered – after telling the girl a scatalogical joke that bonded them both (ironic) – how could she fervently insist that these folks not believe in “their sky king” (her words), beyond a shadow of any doubt, without becoming as obsessively bullying as the very evangelicals she despised?

Silverman’s show was at its most effective when she was telling us stories about the contradictions in her life, noodling through making sense of it all. She seemed exhausted – that could have been the cold from which she was visibly suffering, including a handful of well-placed comic nose blows. If the cold was a bit, she should keep it. It gave you the sense of having a conversation in the living room with a world-weary friend or neighbor who saw this planet through the cracked lens it deserves. She admitted as well that she was trying out material for a new comedy special – some of it worked, some of it didn’t; some of it seemed lazy and slapdash, some of it seemed urgent and inspired; some of it meandered to a piquant conclusion, and some of it just meandered.  I, for one, enjoyed being part of her process of discovery and experimentation, but I’m weird like that.

[Todd Barry - Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Todd Barry – Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

As for Silverman’s opening act – Todd Barry? Well, let’s just say his smirky, dull-as-dishwater routine proved a theory I have that comedy opening acts are there chiefly to make the main show seem that much funnier. If Silverman comes to a casino near you, you are safe to spend that extra 20 minutes at the buffet or slot machine or gift shop or whatever people do in those garish places, until she finally comes onstage.

Regardless, Silverman’s gift chiefly may be in planting seeds and making you question your own perceptions of what is right and wrong in this society of ours. Much has been written in the past few months about the danger of “normalizing” aberrant behavior from our elected leaders. A true feminist has the agency to talk openly about whatever, whenever, with no apologies. Consequently, voices like Silverman’s are more essential now than ever. If there is an artist who ain’t gonna normalize anything, it’s her.

And that’s how trees get planted.

__________________________

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.