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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August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments

Love/Hate star Robert Sheehan gets his chance to shine in the new Twilight, which wastes no time in skipping to that franchise’s most farcical elements.

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Absurdly named heroine Clary Fray (Lily Collins) turns 18 in a Brooklyn apparently inhabited entirely by British and Irish immigrants. Trading an awful poetry reading for a nightclub jaunt with best friend (who wishes he was more) Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary finds herself the witness to a seemingly mystical murder by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Isabelle (Jemima West). The next day her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) is kidnapped by Pangborn (Kevin Durand), who then tortures Clary’s father figure Luke (Aidan Turner) for Jocelyn’s secret; exposing Luke as a werewolf. Jace saves Clary’s life, initiating her into the Shadowhunters – an ancient society of warriors against demons led in Brooklyn by recluse Hodge (Jared Harris). The society is fading away because renegade member Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) stole their creation matrix, before Jocelyn stole it from him; only Clary knows how but her memories are magically blocked…

The Mortal Instruments is great fun for its first act. It almost feels like Kaboom director Gregg Araki at his most playful let loose on a Stephenie Meyer story treatment adding very tart jokes and acidic gay characters like Shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers) and warlock Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) to shake up the Mormon moralising. And then suddenly the movie loses its knowing outrageousness and becomes instead a case study of Damon Lindelof’s concept of ‘story gravity’. The stakes have to be raised so high that the film burns thru plot points in an hour that took it the original Star Wars three movies to deliver, and even has characters chiding each other for not recognising that story gravity requires a terrible ‘secret’ to be revealed. This film doesn’t earn Star Wars’ surprises, or an outrageous appropriation of The Matrix.

After rendering JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier a demon-hunting weapon everything descends into a ludicrousness that left the target audience of teenage girls in fits of hysterics during ‘emotional’ scenes, groaning at a ‘revelation’ involving a family insignia, and cringing at a closing insistence on criminally unsuitable romantic tropes. This is not the fault of the actors mind. Collins is an adequate sub-Nina Dobrev, and Jamie Campbell Bower delivers his zingers without distracting us from how really really good-looking he is. The great Durand is underused, but, despite a cockney accent, smuggles in some Donald Sutherland touches, and acts opposite Robert Maillet; who’s even taller! Headey meanwhile shows Rhys-Meyers how to have the presence to appear for just 10 minutes but make an impact. Director Harald Zwart includes pleasingly visceral horror, but he’s ultimately defeated by the wildly uneven screenplay.

I don’t really want to see more instalments of The Mortal Instruments but it’s frankly impossible to guess what Cassandra Clare fans will forgive.

2.5/5

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.

I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.

I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.

Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

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