Oh, coming-of-age ensemble dramedies: let me count the ways I love them! Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women (A) is a blissful slice of life as characters on the cusp of change in freewheeling 1979 Santa Barbara craft an unconventional family. Central to the film is the relationship between never-been-better Annette Bening as an eccentric divorced chain-smoking single mother and her only son, played with perception by Lucas Jade Zumann. Buoyed by before-their-time left coast sensibilities, Bening’s character enlists three kindred iconoclasts as spiritual guardians of her son’s angsty adolescence. Elle Fanning is brittle brilliance, Greta Gerwig a luminous and tender spirit and a weathered Billy Crudup an unlikely boon companion. Mills intersperses flashbacks, flash-forwards, historical archives and literary snippets, coloring the story in lovely context. There are sequences of majestic intimacy between characters as they tumble, stumble, dance and glance through life’s foibles. The film is a tribute to the mother-son bond, anchored by resplendent female performances and a lens into the many portraits of womanhood. Bening centers the film with a marvelous mix of misanthropy and repartee; she is perfection in the role. Roger Neill’s spry music, plus songs showcasing the rise of an emerging West coast punk scene, accent this love letter to shifting mores and the enduring power of familial love.
The quartet of Boston Globe investigative journalists portrayed in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (A) are often speed-dining on vending machine snack crackers and black coffee, don’t always match their socks and constantly struggle with defective ballpoint pens. But in the year 2001 as major world news was erupting and traditional newspapers were fighting for their life in the digital era, this ragtag group of reporters cracks open one of the biggest scandals in our century about child abuse in the Catholic Church. Told with verve and urgency and impeccably acted, the film is a love letter to the importance of journalism and a crackling good story. Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton are standouts as they plot out the impact of taking the long game and breaking a scoop. It’s an important work and one of the year’s most vital films.
Somewhere on the sliding scale far down from Terms of Endearment and even a few notches down from Beautiful Girls is Shawn Levy’s you-can-go-home-again comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You (C); and despite often amusing and sometimes touching ensemble work, it doesn’t necessarily add up to a cogent success or complete payoff. Faring best are Jason Bateman, Rose Byrne, Adam Driver and Jane Fonda in some affecting and bawdy bits. The very loose plot involves a family being grounded together for a week after the death of its patriarch right as their lives are unraveling and they really could use some good advice. The best parts of the movie are often told in the margins, which makes it a bit touch to break through Levy’s overproduced hucksterism. Dare I say on the first weekend of its theatrical release that it might make a nice rental?
Director Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism ensemble drama The Normal Heart (B) tells a stirring chronicle of life in New York in the ’80s among gay men with the dreaded new virus sneaking up on the population with a slow burn akin to the zombies of modern myths. Mark Ruffalo has never been better as the lead agitator to the political powers that be; and Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch are excellent as the alternately spellbound and skeptical members of his inner circle. Julia Roberts is also effective as a driven doctor helping early casualties of the epidemic. Roberts’ inner Brokovich and Ruffalo’s inner Hulk bring the rage of the stage to the events that unfold. But the director of Eat, Pray, Love, not known for his sustained narrative cohesion, sometimes follows a formula of Meet, Yell, Scream and fizzles without resolution. When he gets it right, especially in the Ruffalo-Bomer romance and in framing a double tragedy, Murphy nails it. But there are other undernourished supporting characters and subplots that don’t propel the plot as effectively. Ultimately the film is a significant slice of history, told with care and resonance about a critical topic that still calls out for our attention. Thanks to commanding performances and an absorbing underdog story, there are great lessons to learn here.
NOTE: 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the Centers for Disease Control. Many believe this film is a very accurate depiction of the CDC in action. The show “On Second Thought” on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s NPR radio will examine the role of CDC in popular culture in July 2016, featuring interviews with Silver Screen Capture.
Pandemics, public health, punditry and political cronyism collide in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent medical thriller Contagion (A-). The director employs a sprawling, star-studded cast and a multi-narrative approach to help tell an ultra-realistic story about how a virus spreads globally into the lives of its characters. More of a worldwide mosaic than intimate character drama, the film is highly effective in showing the science behind the spread of disease and the ramifications and ripple effects on people from a variety of walks of live. Kate Winslet is superb as an epidemic intelligence officer. Matt Damon is also strong as an everyman whose life becomes consumed by something much larger than himself. Jude Law also gets to do some unexpected work with a snarky character. The film is well-shot and well-researched and is a standout in its genre without employing sensationalism.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (A) is a rich canvas of interweaving Los Angeles stories about the wounds people inflict on each other and the redemptive qualities the right people can bring to each other at just the right time and just the right moment. Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore are among the standout performers in this miracle play, in which you feel frogs really could start falling from the sky. Anderson’s quick pacing and cross-cutting also leaves room for some very long conversations and extremely poignant conversations. The songbook of Aimee Mann is almost a supporting character as it features prominently in many of the film’s vital scenes. This is a dramatic tour de force and will challenge the viewer in myriad ways.
Director Robert Altman’s 1970’s classic Nashville is often described as “24 characters searching for a movie.” His Short Cuts (B) adds about ten more to the mix as it tells a panoramic story of interlocking characters adrift in modern-day Los Angeles. Lily Tomlin, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon and Julianne Moore are among the standouts in the ensemble cast. With so many short stories – some comedic, some tragic, some formal, some jazzy – the plot defies a Player-esque 25-word-or-less pitch. But at a Short three and a half hour running time, it’s an intriguing, ironic and insightful look at modern relationships.
Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (A) brilliantly explores the relationships between Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters and tells universal truths about what parents and offspring can learn from one another. Four interlocking stories are deftly balanced, and overlapping flashbacks work surprisingly well to build to a crescendo of heartbreak and release. It’s a highly recommended ensemble drama with standout performances by Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita and Vivian Wu.