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20th Century Women Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

20th Century Women (2016) movie poster 20th Century Women

Theatrical Release: December 28, 2016 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Annette Bening (Dorothea Fields), Elle Fanning (Julie), Greta Gerwig (Abbie), Lucas Jade Zumann (Jamie), Billy Crudup (William), Alison Elliott (Julie's Mother), Thea Gill (Abbie's Mother), Vitaly A Lebeau (Young Jamie), Olivia Hone (Julie's Sister), Waleed Zuaiter (Charlie), Curran Walters (Matt), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Julian), Alia Shawkat (Trish), Nathalie Love (Cindy)

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Writer-director Mike Mills follows up 2011's Beginners, which won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar
for Christopher Plummer, with 20th Century Women, an original dramedy set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The film tells the story of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a vaguely-defined teenaged boy who is being raised by his divorced, open-minded mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening).

Worrying about Jamie at this pivotal point in his life, Jamie asks two other women to help her raise him: magenta-haired boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie's slightly older friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning). The ladies do what they can. Abbie shares her primary passion, feminism, while Julie opens up about her sexual experiences. Jamie goes to a club with Abbie and takes a road trip with Julie. Dorothea continues to worry about her son, hoping he'll find the happiness that has largely eluded her.

In "20th Century Women", Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) worries about the well-being of her teenaged son.

You presume 20th Century Women is autobiographical in nature and indeed Mills was born in nearby Berkeley in 1966. In Beginners, Plummer played a character based on Mills' father. Here, Bening shares a number of qualities with Mills' mother, including a death from cancer in 1999. In this fictionalization, Bening is single, which is a variation on the married but secretly gay life his father (and Plummer's character) led.

20th Century Women is easy to admire for its recreation of a time and place. You can also respect that women, a gender largely marginalized on both sides of the camera in film, get to feature prominently here in three three-dimensional leading roles. Unfortunately, there is little else to appreciate about the film, which is a series of incidents that do not add up to anything greater. Mills pays homage to the books, music, and films that shaped him with title and year-crediting text accompanying excerpts from the likes of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi to Judy Blume's Forever. And if you grew up in a similar time, were exposed to comparable bits of culture, and led a similarly gender-enlightened life surrounded by women, this should resonate deeply with you.

Dorothea asks Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to help her with the load of raising her son.

If not, you may struggle to stay awake, as I did even with the aid of a coffee drink at my Thanksgiving Eve theatrical screening.
The cast is good, from the dependable Bening and oft-great Gerwig to newcomer Zumann and, in the biggest adult male role of note, Billy Crudup. Mills injects the proceedings with both authenticity (having lived it) and flair (a number of driving scenes turn roadside surroundings prismatic as if under the spell of a hallucinogen). And there are definitely some interesting ideas raised, from the perils of parenting to the possibilities of unwanted pregnancy or infertility. But it fails to produce a strong emotional response or real investment.

Perhaps this celebration of women might have meant more with a woman at the helm, since there is such a dearth of female voices in Hollywood. Or perhaps there just isn't a film to be found in this chapter of Mills' life that is able to captivate those who haven't had comparable experiences. 20th Century is well-made and flirts with profundity and poignancy (the narration that travels through time to put these images into context is moving and a creative touch), but it never completely captures them or leaves you feeling fulfilled.

A four-time Oscar bridesmaid, Bening has built an "overdue" narrative over her long career as she approaches 60. That might have earned her some sympathy votes, but this was neither the movie nor the performance to push her into the winner's circle. In a productive few years, Gerwig has become overdue for an Oscar nomination, but again she too has done more rewarding and substantial work elsewhere. With A24 having a real Oscar contender in Moonlight, two nominations in the Golden Globes' characteristically weak Comedy or Musical categories represented the height of 20th Century Women's recognition.

A modest award season presence made it difficult for the film to find an audience in its New Year's Eve weekend opening and late January expansion. Despite a max theater count of 650, 20th Century still fell short of what Beginners made in just 170 theaters back in 2011. The film hits Blu-ray and DVD from A24 partner Lionsgate on the last Tuesday of March, its lone Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay prominently touted in the cover artwork.

20th Century Women: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.00:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Extras Not Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: March 28, 2017
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($19.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The most striking thing about 20th Century Women visually may be that it uses the 2.00:1 aspect ratio that hasn't ever really been a standard. The Blu-ray presents the film as intended with some deliberate grain and great detail and clarity. The 5.1 DTS HD master audio soundtrack gets the job done, most getting your attention with its distribution of period music, though also keeping dialogue and voiceover full-bodied and crisp.

Writer-director Mike Mills opens up in an audio commentary and two making-of featurettes. Clips and period stills adorn the 20th Century Women Blu-ray menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras begin with an audio commentary by writer-director Mike Mills. He makes it clear from the start that he's addressing this to filmmakers, so he does tend to be somewhat technical in his observations revelations,

touching upon lighting, locations, and his cinematic influences. He also points out aspects and props taken from his actual life. And in addition to covering expected bases like music and improvisation, he even touches upon smaller topics like working with cigarettes and cats. There's a bit more to this than the typical commentary, which is perhaps no surprise given the film's overtly personal nature.

Two HD featurettes follow.

"Making 20th Century Women" (9:31) is less generic than it sounds. Thoughtful remarks from Mills and the cast and crew are complemented by film clips and some behind-the-scenes footage. They deal not just with the story and characters, but also recreating 1979 precisely.

"20th Century Cast" (10:49) celebrates the cast with more talking heads, as Mills and the leads tackle one principal character at a time.

"Trailers" repeats the disc-opening full theatrical previews for Moonlight, La La Land, American Honey, The Lobster, and Morris from America. 20th Century Women's own trailer, prominently featuring Talking Heads' "The Big Country", is regrettably not included.

Emulating the film's design, the scored menu tastefully displays clips and stills in squares and rectangles against white. The Blu-ray both supports bookmarks and resumes playback.

The plain gray disc sits across from the Digital HD code insert in the slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase.

Dorothea (Annette Bening) and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) see a car catch fire in the parking lot of a grocery store.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As thoughtful personal storytelling, 20th Century Women is easy to appreciate. As a piece of entertainment, though, this doesn't do an excellent job of keeping you interested and engaged. Lionsgate's Blu-ray offers a fine presentation of the film plus a handful of substantial extras. If the cast or setting interest you, this warrants a rental.

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Reviewed March 17, 2017.



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