Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women

Acknowledging the influence of Fellini on his work and name-checking conceptual artists like Hans Haacke in his soft California drawl, Berkeley-born Mike Mills has clearly embraced the “art fag” label that his alter ego, young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), struggles to come to terms with in 20th Century Women. A multimedia artist who’s designed CD covers, clothing, and skateboards as well as directed music videos, commercials, and feature films, Mills filters life through an art-school lens, and if he’s better than most of us at being unapologetically himself, perhaps it’s because he had good role models.

Mills’s last film, 2010’s Oscar-winning Beginners, was based on the unexpected ways in which his relationship with his father, Paul Mills, deepened after Paul came out in his mid-70s, relaxing into himself and opening up to his son in ways he never had before. In 20th Century Women, a loving tribute to his mother and the other young women and girls who helped raise him, Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a gallant soul with a healthy contempt for conventional wisdom and a creative talent for carving her own path through life. As the film’s title implies, it’s essentially a character study of several people, but the stories of the five main characters are layered together in a nonlinear pastiche that shifts in perspective as well as in time.

In a conversation earlier this month at the A24 offices in Manhattan, Mills talked about why it was easiest for him to understand his mother by thinking of her as a trans man, how art school opened up his conception of what a movie can be, and why the ‘70s was a feminine decade in America.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 8, "Hearts Still Beating"

This season's start was as bleak as any in The Walking Dead's history, but the show's midseason finale closed on a major note of hope. Tested by the fire of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sadistic dictatorship, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and most of his core group wound up stronger than ever, determined to stand up to their tormentor—and to do it together. “Hearts Still Beating” ends on a shadowy figure who's spying on our survivors, the close-up of his (or her?) boots establishing that it's the same person who shadowed Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Rick on their supply run earlier that day.

Hidden Figures

Director Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures sheds light on a little-known corner of history by outlining the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. When the story begins in 1961, NASA doesn't yet have electronic computers, so it has to rely on people to calculate the mathematical data needed to successfully launch space missions. The open and unapologetic sexism of the time is reflected in the gender-stratified jobs: All the so-called “computers” are women, while only men get the more prestigious and better-paid jobs that involve using the numbers crunched by the women to launch rockets into space. And, since this is the Jim Crow South, the African-American computers all work in the same room, behind a door labeled “Colored Computers.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Top 10 Movies of 2016

Here's my top 10 list for the year...
  1. Fire at Sea
  2. The Handmaiden
  3. O.J. Made in America
  4. Moonlight
  5. Happy Hour
  6. Manchester by the Sea 
  7. 13th
  8. Cemetery of Splendor
  9. 20th Century Women (my interview with Mike Mills)
  10. Fireworks Wednesday
... and my honorable mentions
Aferim!, Cameraperson, Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Lobster, Mountains May Depart, No Home Movie, Sworn Virgin, Tower

And here's Slant's list of the year's 25 best, which I contributed to.

Fire at Sea

The quietly intense Fire at Sea captures life and death on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which serves as a crucial waystation for refugees due to its location between Africa and Europe. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi penetrates deep into the world of 12-year-old Samuele, a fisherman’s son whose daily life, which runs along a path laid down generations ago, seems almost completely untouched by the tragedies playing out a few kilometers away. When Rosi isn’t watching Samuele do things like make and master a slingshot or head into the brush for a tender encounter with a wild bird, he’s observing the process by which refugees enter a fenced-off holding camp on the island, shooting close-ups of loss-ravaged faces and vignettes about some of the trials they’ve endured. The bifurcation between their world and Samuele’s, a metaphor for the gulf between the dispossessed and the rest of us, might feel too on-the-nose if only it were not the awful truth. Written for Slant Magazine

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Founder

Michael Keaton has used his jittery intensity to play sympathetic villains in the past, in films such as Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures, but he's never been as odious as he is in director John Lee Hancock's The Founder. Keaton's Ray Kroc is an aw-shucks avatar of American capitalism, the kind of guy who will reach out to shake your hand and then rip your arm right out of its socket.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

TV (including serial shows on platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon) has been nipping at the heels of theatrical feature films for a while now, but this year it surpassed them. It's always hard to come up with just 10 movies for my top-10 year-end list, but it was way harder this year to come up with the top 10 TV shows. Thank goodness for honorable mentions.

My Top 10:
  1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
  2. Atlanta
  3. Bojack Horseman
  4. The Americans
  5. Jane the Virgin
  6. Happy Valley 
  7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  8. Narcos
  9. Transparent
  10. One Mississippi

My honorable mentions:
Fleabag, Girls, Insecure, Lady Dynamite, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley, Togetherness, High Maintenance, Westworld, Black Mirror, The Middle, black-ish, The Crown, The Good Place

And here's Slant's list, which I contributed to.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 Episode 7, "Sing Me a Song"

The Hitchockian opening scene of tonight's episode of The Walking Dead, “Sing Me a Song,” makes clever use of Michonne's (Danai Gurira) inscrutability. Walking down an initially empty country road and whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” to attract her prey, Michonne is the epitome of the existentially alone western hero she personifies more than anyone else in Rick's group as she sets a walker-lined trap whose purpose is disturbingly opaque. The close-up of the sword and walkie-talkie she leaves behind as she drags a body down the road is a particularly unsettling bit of misdirection: Is she planning to commit suicide by walker? And even if she's doing something else, like setting things up to make it look as if walkers got her so she can go underground, how long can she survive without that sword?