Talking Movies

February 23, 2018

Lady Bird

On an avalanche of hype Greta Gerwig’s second film as director finally arrives here, depicting the senior high school year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

Sacramento native Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on referring to herself by her new self-given given name of Lady Bird, is returning from scouting California colleges with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when she breaks her arm being melodramatic. Further misadventures involve falling out with her fat best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and falling in with the rich, pretty, vacuous Jenna (Odeya Rush) while she goes from romancing charming co-star Danny (Lucas Hedges) to moody musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). She is determined to go to college on the East Coast despite money worries caused by her father Larry (Tracy Letts) being let go, and further family tension owing to her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) working checkouts despite having Berkeley degrees because of the ‘jobless recovery’. This is 2002/3, you see. 

Among the baneful distortions of reality the Oscars cause is the unrealistic hype that can destroy some films, which can never live up to expectations like ‘the greatest screen performance of all time’ Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly gave in There Will Be Blood. Lady Bird is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes among critics, it’s meant to be the feminist film of our times, the antidote to Trump’s America, take your pick of whatever hyperbole attaches to it online. But after Frances Ha and Mistress America this film is a disappointment. Sam Levy, who shot those two as well as Maggie’s Plan, casts a hazier light over proceedings here which matches Gerwig’s impressionistic portrait of a year with vignettes and montages. But too much of Lady Bird is populated by stock characters, a vague backdrop outside the only carefully etched relationship: mother-daughter.

It’s odd that, after Twilight (!), Gerwig sees fit to also rehash Gilmore Girls’ exemplar: the dull dependable boyfriend versus the edgy erratic boyfriend. More predictable is that, like Wish I Was Here or Middlesex, Lady Bird presents an artist’s abandoned religion as ancient nonsense/psychotic cult. In this case juvenile anti-Catholicism leads directly to a terrible misstep. Lady Bird is horrible to her best friend when she’s chorus and Julie lead in their school musical, she’s horrible to her brother when failing at college admission, and, in one of the most repellent scenes I’ve ever seen, especially for a ‘charming indie’, she’s horrible to anti-abortion speaker Casey (Bayne Gibby) whose very existence she dismisses as a joke. Lady Bird isn’t very funny, talented, smart, or nice. And as this film is steadfastly uninterested in developing anyone else that’s a problem…

‘Important’ films are rarely good, and sadly it seems Gerwig is being feted for making an important film, because this falls short of what she’s done in the past.

3/5

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September 25, 2015

Miss You Already

Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore are thirty-something BFFs whose bond is sorely tested when Collette’s reformed wild child loses her way while battling breast cancer. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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The film opens with a quick gallop through the lives of Milly and Jess, from Jess’ arrival as an American kid to an English school, to hanging out with Milly’s actress mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset), to being groupies until an unplanned pregnancy sees Milly marry roadie Kit (Dominic Cooper) and settle down to a PR career while Kit embraces the business side of music. Jess meanwhile works for a Green NGO and lives on a houseboat with Jago (Paddy Considine), a builder and oil-rig worker. And then Milly is informed she has breast cancer. So begins debilitating bouts of chemotherapy and the psyche-destroying hair-loss before the emperor of maladies unleashes the full arsenal of horrors. As Milly’s condition deteriorates it takes a heavy toll not only on her marriage, but also drives a wedge between Jess and Jago as Jago becomes increasingly aggrieved at IVF being put on hold for the sake of Milly; especially as Milly becomes increasingly unbearable.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Judd Apatow, Greta Gerwig, and Mia Hansen-Love in the mix.

April 1, 2015

While We’re Young

Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach returns to the NYC art scene, but loses Greta Gerwig as co-writer and reinstates Greenberg cohort Ben Stiller as protagonist.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian. He’s married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer, whose father is the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin).  Josh and Cornelia’s best friends Fletcher (Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz!!) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have just had a kid. Indeed the misleading opening finds Josh and Cornelia gazing at the baby while a mobile playing a cutesy version of Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ hangs over the cot. Having lost Fletcher to the children cult Josh is receptive to a hipster couple he meets after one of his New School extension lectures. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a would-be documentarian, his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes home-made ice cream, and they live in a Brooklyn flat with friend and occasional band-mate Tipper (Dree Hemingway). Josh is enchanted, and soon so is Cornelia, but can this rejuvenation end well?

While We’re Young is less sunny than Frances Ha, but thankfully not as bitter as Greenberg, and, from the opening hilarious quotes from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is always engaging. Some montages of Josh and Cornelia’s rediscovery of their youth thru hip-hop and hats equal Frances Ha’s use of pop, and Baumbach also mocks ‘Eye of the Tiger’ motivational status (“I remember when this song was just bad”). But Frances Ha was about being lost and aimless. This is about a couple who have everything, and are jaded, meeting a couple who have little, but are liberated. Josh has spent 8 years not finishing a documentary, and laments “I only have two moods: wistful and disdainful.” For Jamie making a documentary is a free and easy process, as whimsy-driven as choosing to not know a factoid rather than google it.

But when Jamie uses a remote control to zoom-in for a close-up on his face during a ‘spontaneous’ tearful scene when interviewing old school-friend Kent (Brady Corbet), Josh realises Jamie’s directing is as affected as the love of vinyl and VHS… Then things get All About Eve as Jamie supplants Josh in the affections of Leslie (veteran Grodin on fine comedic form). It’s a bit silly, not least as it draws attention to Baumbach’s own idol-supplanting. Josh is Woody Allen in Crimes & Misdemeanours: a film-maker unable to finish a documentary showcasing an aged academic proffering arcane wisdom. It’s as odd as James Murphy’s music and Baumbach’s staging creating an oddly sinister intercutting of a valedictory speech and an ethical confrontation, almost as if Baumbach is parodying his own concerns: Woody’s stakes were life and death, his, just passé ethics.

While We’re Young has moments of genuine sadness, like Cornelia (who’s miscarried repeatedly) freaking out a baby music class, but Baumbach opts for an all too pat comedy ending.

3.5/5

January 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens return with their worst film since their mainstream disasters Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and this time round they can’t say their vision was distorted by mainstream pressures.

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Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a folksong at the Gaslight Cafe in 1961. Walking backstage he’s punched in the face, an unwelcome reminder of the Coens’ Gambit script. The effectively homeless Llewyn wakes up on the Gorfeins’ couch and leaves their flat in accidental possession of their cat. His next planned couch, that of occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), has been promised to earnest GI singer Troy (Stark Sands). Worse still Jean is pregnant and, unsure of the paternity, wants to abort the baby. The needful money comes from Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) inviting Llewyn to join Al Cody (Adam Driver) as a session player on Jim’s novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’. After Llewyn alienates everybody he knows he is reduced to sharing a car to Chicago with rude jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), in a quest to impress Chicagoan music impresario (F Murray Abraham). Can Llewyn finally get his voice heard?

You won’t care… Even if you’re still conscious after the tedium of the tedious road-trip, you won’t care because Llewyn is comprehensively as obnoxious a protagonist as you have ever seen. He’s an abrasive, unreasonable, uncaring, and only slightly talented egomaniacal dick. But he’s not compelling as a character, and he’s not even consistent. In a horrific scene he curses the inexplicably hospitable Gorfeins for wanting him to perform after dinner when he’s ‘a professional musician’. A few scenes later he performs to entertain the driving Johnny, even though he’s still ‘a professional musician’. A character this toxic infects everything… The crudity of dialogue is astonishing, and having Llewyn upbraided for his foul mouth doesn’t overcome it. The acting also decays: Mulligan shouts or snaps nearly all of her lines, snapping being one gradation below shouting with her, On the Road’s Hedlund’s appearance seems an unfunny in-joke, because he’s playing a meaner Dean Moriarty, and Goodman is on uncommitted auto-pilot.

I only love two Coen films, the most absurd ones: Raising ArizonaO Brother. I’ve long felt they were over-rated given their taste for crunching violence, blank characters, and a curious air of superiority, but this is a startling nadir. I can’t give you any reason to see Inside Llewyn Davis. Its full performances of minor folksongs can be bettered by throwing on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a truer sense of that scene can be acquired by reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, a more insightful study of a failing artist featuring Adam Driver is Frances Ha, and a more compelling abrasive guy getting into shouting matches stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I also can’t explain Inside Llewyn Davis’ existence. Singers need to perform to an audience, and Llewyn can’t properly connect with audiences, so his unrelenting monstrousness isn’t redeemed personally or artistically. If that’s the point, then… we all encounter enough jerks in life without needing films about them…

The Coen Brothers often give the impression they have a smirking contempt for their cipher characters, but this film shades over into contempt for their adoring audience in addition.

0/5

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

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