One of my first grown-up jobs was at a social-service agency founded by German Jews. There were still a few older German ladies working there when I arrived. Although they were very friendly and courteous, their sense of humor was bizarre. One of them would come in on a wet morning, shake out her umbrella, and announce that it was raining outside. The others would almost choke with laughter at that remark. While the rest of the staff ignored them, I couldn’t stop trying to figure out what was so funny. The answer was nothing was funny. They were just German.
This anecdote is to introduce the comedy “Toni Erdmann,” just as bizarrely “funny” and charming as those elderly ladies. “Toni Erdmann” has enough going for it that even if you don’t find it a laugh riot, you can enjoy its wry vision of human relations and our tentative approach to mortality. Winfried, an inveterate prankster, decides to visit his hard-driving corporate consultant daughter Ines in Bucharest. The two have had a difficult relationship for a long time, it seems, and Winfried tries hard to break through her shell. At a party, he shows up in a wig and fake teeth and introduces himself to her colleagues as Toni Erdmann. Naturally, Ines’s boss and co-workers find Toni charming, as Ines slowly burns with embarrassment. When he accompanies them to a dance club and begins to hit on two young women at the bar, things get really bad. Gradually, Ines is forced to look critically at her work–which mostly involves firing people–and at its cost to her sense of self.
The story of parent and child trying to connect is not original, but writer-director Maren Ade takes lots of chances and most of them land. The tone throughout the film is dry and unsentimental, and the performances excellent. You will read a lot about the naked birthday party, which is pretty funny, and there is another astonishing scene that involves Ines’s singing a Whitney Houston song. I often found Toni as irritating as Ines does, but despite that stayed engaged for the almost three hours that the movie runs. Something different, for sure.
Mother and Son
Another sort-of comedy about parents and children is the Annette Bening vehicle “20th Century Women,” but this time it’s a mother and son. Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Mike Mills’ movie tries to track the women’s movement through three generations. Bening plays the single mother Dorothea, a woman in her mid-fifties who grew up during the Depression. She enlists the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a rebellious artist in her late twenties, to raise her adolescent son Jamie. She also solicits the advice of Jamie’s 18-year-old pal Julie, with whom he is secretly in love. Julie has a habit of sneaking into Jamie’s room and sleeping in his bed.
One of the first female draftsmen at a (I think) defense plant, Dorothea is an intuitive feminist by virtue of her saying and doing whatever she wants. Also, she wanted to be a pilot, which must be meaningful. She’s too old to admit that feminism means anything in her life, according to Mills, but punkster Abbie is right out there, discussing her menstrual cycle at the dinner table and coaching Jamie on female orgasm. Julie seems to represent the post-feminist generation that approaches sex as boys supposedly do, separating sex from emotion. She sleeps with everyone except Jamie. Their relationship is too intimate for sex, she explains.
Dorothea and Abbie live in this great old house, which is in a constant state of renovation. Dorothea drives an ancient car and invites strangers to dinner. What she doesn’t do is have personal relationships or talk honestly to her son. Actually, none of these people behave in emotionally credible ways, which is what happens when you create characters who symbolize things. I couldn’t help think about “Manchester by the Sea,” despite the two being totally different films. Whereas the characters in “Manchester” feel completely authentic, the women in “20th Century Women” feel totally fake. Nothing about Dorothea makes sense, but Mills has designed her to stand for something rather than exist in a real emotional space. The movie looks good and has a lot of star power but not much else.
Return to 1964
“Two Trains Running” is a terrific documentary that tracks the journeys through Mississippi of two groups of young people in 1964. A bunch of young white blues fans from Cambridge decided to find two country blues legends, Skip James and Son House, when the two men seemed lost in time; no one was certain that they were still alive. At the time, country blues was part of the folk scene, and it attracted the sort of earnest young people who listened to folk music. Several MIT students thought it would be fun to drive to Mississippi and poke around to see what they could uncover. Simultaneously, black and white students from across the country were flooding into Mississippi for Freedom Summer setting up schools and trying to register voters. White Mississippians were furious at this intrusion, and they viewed all northern young people as outside agitators. The blues hunters were not consciously political, but their devotion to the music of rural African-Americans made them unknowing resisters. Amazingly, Son House was found on the very day that Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney disappeared.
Using archival footage, animation, and narration by Common, who is also a producer, veteran filmmaker Sam Pollard knits these two strands together in an astonishing way, giving us new information and insights into a time that many people feel they know so well. The documentary is filled with great music too. It’s really worth searching out.
Farewell to Rectify
One of the best television series of the past decade has come to an unnatural end, but that doesn’t dim the brilliance of “Rectify,” the slow-moving drama from the Sundance channel. Ostensibly a mystery concerning the rape-murder of a teenage girl twenty years earlier, “Rectify” was really a story about spiritual searching, forgiveness, guilt, and redemption. It was easily the most religious show I’ve ever seen on TV, graced with superb performances and almost novelistic characterizations. The deep moral questions come from convicts, lawyers, tire salesmen, housewives, and other ordinary folks rather than professional clergy, and are all the more thought provoking for that.
Aden Young portrayed Daniel Holden, a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for the murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend when conflicting DNA evidence is discovered. Daniel returns to his small-town Georgia home, traumatized and broken. His family tries to welcome him, but they are dealing with their own struggles, some of which have to do with him and some of which don’t. Clayne Crawford was a standout for me as Daniel’s angry, insecure stepbrother and the husband of Tawney, a deeply religious Christian who reaches out to Daniel. The radiant Adelaide Clemens was wonderful as Tawney. Both she and Young are Australian, a place that seems to grow amazing actors by the bushel.
The show ended after four seasons, and the last season felt rushed to me, with a concluding episode that was uncharacteristically tidy. But this is still an extraordinary series, unlike almost everything else on television. The first three seasons are streaming on Netflix now. Don’t miss it.