C’MON C’MON (2021)

November 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Not all filmmakers have something to say about human beings and human nature, but writer-director Mike Mills does … and he continues to prove it. His three previous feature films are all excellent. 20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016) was based on his experience being raised by his mother, while BEGINNERS (2010) was a tribute to his father. THUMBSUCKER (2005) focused on teen angst, and his latest is inspired by interactions with his own son and Mills’ documentary projects.

From the mouths of babes. Early on, we watch and listen as radio journalist Johnny (Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER, 2019) interviews kids in Detroit to get their opinions on all aspects of life and the world, including their hopes and expectations for the future. This and additional segments and the kids’ responses seem real, not staged, presenting a documentary feel – especially since everything is filmed in Black and White. In a rare phone call with his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, who will always be remembered as Ray’s daughter in FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989), Johnny offers to take care of Viv’s 9 year old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while Viv assists Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who battles ongoing mental health issues.

Viv is reticent to leave Jesse with Uncle Johnny, an unmarried man with no kids of his own. But she’s desperate for the help. Most of the film revolves around Johnny and Jesse spending time together and getting to know each other. Circumstances take the story from Detroit to New York City to Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans. It’s a terrific journey that lacks any jaw-dropping cinematic elements. These two aren’t mountain climbing or spelunking. They simply walk and talk. This allows Jesse to experience a father-figure that’s been lacking in his life. For Johnny, he gains a perspective on parenting, which contrasts with his professional work interviewing kids. Jesse is whip smart and funny, but also manipulative and confused and downright quirky. The two of them together is quite something to watch as their relationship develops.

Viv shows up mostly in phone calls with Johnny and Jesse, but flashbacks help us understand the emotional break that occurred between she and Johnny. As the two siblings mend their relationship despite the distance, Mills and cinematographer Robbie Ryan effectively use the black and white palette to negate the excitement of big cities and travel, so that we focus on the personal interactions of the characters. The photography may be beautiful to look at, but it also reminds us that to a kid, a city is a city is a city, and what matters is an emotional bond and sense of security.

Young Woody Norman is a revelation as Jesse. He perfectly portrays a normal kid with normal issues in a grown up world. Gaby Hoffman doesn’t have as many scenes as we’d like, but we certainly wish she would work more frequently. As for Joaquin Phoenix, it’s a welcome change of pace and tone after JOKER. He plays a man learning to deal with his own vulnerabilities, and he really gets to show off his extraordinary acting talent. The script is filled with psychology and philosophy, but in a grounded manner – ways we recognize from our own lives. It’s a reflective film that shows the balance of trying to protect kids and shield them from some adult stuff, while also allowing them to explore and find themselves. The impact of adults on kids and the impact of kids on adults is on full display, but it’s also just a couple of guys getting to know each other. And that’s pretty special to watch.

The film had a limited opening on November 19, and expands to more cities and theaters on November 24, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEGINNERS

June 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a terrific little art-house character study with comedic elements, fine acting and superb writing. The creative force is Mike Mills, who was also the writer and director on another excellent little movie from about 5 years ago called Thumbsucker. When I say “little movie”, I mean intimate and poignant with a nominal budget.

Three interwoven time periods are presented to an effective end. One period shows us Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as a young kid interacting with his mother (Mary Page Keller). Another period shows Oliver’s 75 year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) confessing to him that he is gay (this is a few months after the mother/wife dies). The third period has Oliver trying to forge a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he met at a costume party.

 While that may sound like a simple set-up, I assure you that the complications created by these characters are realistic and head-spinning. It turns out Hal knew he was gay prior to marrying Oliver’s mother, but claims she promised to “fix” him. Once he proclaims his gayness, Hal jumps in with both feet to all causes gay. He thoroughly enjoys himself and even clicks with a new, younger lover. And just when he admits to joy, inoperable cancer is discovered in Hal’s lungs. This begins the second major secret of his life.

 The scenes from Oliver’s childhood provide crucial evidence on why he is so solemn and afraid of relationships. He suffers quietly just as his mother did. Things begin to shift for him when, dressed as Freud, his costume party sofa becomes occupied by Anna – a beautiful, alluring French actress who, it turns out, is just as messed up emotionally as is Oliver. They make the perfect threesome … including Arthur, Hal’s Jack Terrier, who (speaking through subtitles) lets us know when things are either OK or not. Arthur takes a great deal of the heaviness away, though not in a slapstick manner.

There are many elements of this film that I really like. The houses of both Hal and Oliver are full of as much personality as either of the characters. The look and pace of the film is meticulous and steady given the material. It seems to be naturally lighted from windows and interior sconces. Nothing even comes close to looking like a Hollywood set.

 Ewan McGregor plays his part very close to the vest and conveys the pain and uncertainty that Oliver has learned over the years. His defenses are up! Melanie Laurent was my favorite part of Inglourious Basterds (she was the cinema owner on a mission) and here she offers both hopefulness and melancholy. To me, the heart of the film is Christopher Plummer’s performance. He portrays an elderly gay man with grace and then takes it to another level in his “cancer” scenes. He is a wise man who may or may not understand how selfish he was, but is intent on showing Oliver that it’s never to late to be a “beginner” in love.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the special moments that a well made arthouse film can deliver OR you want to see the leader in the clubhouse for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Thor or X-Men is more your cup of tea, as the only chase scene involves McGregor catching a flight to apologize to Laurent.