Reviews & More: A Small Gem

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“20th Century Women”

“La La Land” is director/writer Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) love letter to Los Angeles, especially the Silver Lake neighborhood. A huge, ambitious, color-soaked film, it’s about 80 percent successful at following through on its goal to bring back the American musical. The opening number, a dizzying song-and-dance staged around, on top of and in between gridlocked cars on an LA freeway ramp, is simply smashing, setting the tone for what we hope will be a glorious time at the movies. The casting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the star-crossed lovers works beautifully; the chemistry they had in “Crazy Stupid Love” (a movie I adore) is still there. He is an often-surly musician, she an aspiring actress. A real standout scene for Stone is at an audition, which calls for her to enact a woman being dumped over the phone, a tour-de-force that is interrupted by a door opening, people talking over her. The camerawork is cleverly evocative of “An American in Paris” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

What didn’t work for me was that it went on about 10 or 15 minutes too long — magic is so ephemeral, it can wear out its welcome. And, while Gosling and Stone are decent enough dancers, they don’t create the thrilling enchantment needed for the dance sequences; I found myself admiring the hard work that must have gone into their rehearsals instead of being enthralled. A couple of crucial scenes seemed improvised (awkwardly) instead of scripted, which interrupted the flow. Even so, the ending is terrific, both a reality check as well as the fantasy we were hoping for. 

Annette Bening must be one of the least vain actresses today. While her lively eyes sparkle as always, she plays a woman over 50 — Bening’s own age — and looks it. I have no judgment on the cosmetic work done on most American actresses, but what a joy it is to see a mature woman with actual lines on her face. Bening shines in “20th Century Women,” a small gem of a film. Set in the early 1970s, a time when the revolution in sexual mores, racial and gender equality issues, Watergate, etc., were slowly upending the American experience, it follows three women through difficult, potentially life-altering moments. Bening’s character owns a home where she is raising a son and taking in boarders. One of them is played by Greta Gerwig, as always funny and offbeat as a young woman in her 20s. A teenage neighbor (Elle Fanning) is lovely but silently troubled. It’s Bening’s film, but everyone is terrific, including Billy Crudup as another boarder. The script and direction by Mike Mills is careful and insightful, never going for big, dramatic effects, just small moments in the lives of ordinary people.

If you are or know anyone who (1) worships Steven Sondheim, (2) dreamed from early childhood of being on Broadway, whether they achieved that or not, (3) is over 40 and (4) thinks the 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is underrated, then “The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is their documentary. It’s sad and funny and exhilarating, all at the same time. I was spellbound, but then (confession time) I’m not really objective as I fit all four categories. Check it out for yourself.

Addendum: In my last column I said I hadn’t watched the final episode of the new “Gilmore Girls” mini-series. I have now done so and it’s the best of the four, definitely worth watching. Sukie is back, and the last two lines of dialog provide a fun, unexpected twist.