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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January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2014. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as top of the class, the runners up being right behind them, with also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) Arquette’s character grows older but not wiser, instead we see her becomingly increasingly brittle as even she realises that she’s sensible about everything except her romantic choices.

Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) Forming a great double act with Ben Affleck, Coon broke out from theatre with a glorious turn as his twin sister– the foulmouthed and spiky voice of reason.

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) Lawrence was perhaps too young for the part, but she played it with such comic panache that her sporadic appearances energised an overlong film.

Runners Up:

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank) Gyllenhaal was pitch-perfect as scary obscurantist Clara, with wonderful nuance in the slow reveal of how such off-kilter music bonds her and Frank’s damaged and isolated psyches.

Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) Foy was bright, furious, and resentful, and blew Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of their character, the indomitable Murph.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) Paulson’s casual brutality towards slaves was deeply shocking, but her horror at being replaced sexually by a slave subtly underscored her menace.

Also Placed:

Amber Heard (3 Days to Kill) Parodying her hyper-sexualised persona (The Informers) Heard, in leathers and wigs, flirted with burlesque girls and sexualised both driving fast and injecting medicine.

Joey King (Wish I Was Here) Pitted against Zach Braff’s glibly sarcastic agnosticism the sincerity of King’s adherence to Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity blew him off the screen.

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Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) His character’s drugs spiral, even as his friendship with Ron becomes beautiful, was extremely moving, with his fierce commitment extending to deliberately ravaging his appearance.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) His vicious bible-thumping alcoholic was terrifying, but also complex; slaves are either sub-human or masters are guilty, and Epps is self-destructing from mercilessly exploiting his slaves.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) Hawke physically filled out in a career-best performance of serious comedy as deadbeat dad whose rebelliousness was an affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the world.

Runners Up:

Andrew Scott (The Stag, Locke) Scott was their sole highlight: his Locke vocal performance exuded excitability and exasperation, while Davin was a man fatally wounded by romantic rejection being tortured some more by his ex-girlfriend.

Killian Scott (Calvary, ’71) His Calvary misfit Milo was dementedly funny in rambling frustration, and he so transformed into ruthless IRA leader Quinn that he seemed not only older and tougher, but almost taller.

Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours) Efron’s previous subversions of his image were nothing next to this jackpot: his squeaky clean looks have never been put to such diabolical and hilarious use.

James Corden (Begin Again) Corden not only frequently gave the impression that he was ad-libbing great comedy moments, but also that he was improvising Knightley into unscripted corpsing bonhomie.

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) Bautista took what could have been a tiresome running gag and instead by dedicated deadpan made utter literalness to the point of insanity infinitely unexpected and hysterical.

Also Placed:

Adam Driver (What If, Tracks) Sparring against Mackenzie Davis and Daniel Radcliffe in What If he was highly amusing and occasionally sagacious, and was both funny and adorably awkward in Tracks.

Gene Jones (The Sacrament) He was patently playing Jim Jones, and turned the charisma up to 11 for a TV interview that was so mesmerising it explained Father’s cult of personality.

Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here) Patinkin brought deep humanity and biting humour to his wise, religious father disappointed by his glib, agnostic son but delighted by his bright, devout granddaughter.

Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) The man can actually act! And as celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt he transformed the oily character from the novel by bringing palpable warmth to the part.

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Best Actress

Keira Knightley (Begin Again) Knightley sang rather well, but not only did she carry a tune she also carried the movie with a return of her old confidence. Maybe all that’s needed to restore the old swagger is James Corden ad-libbing her into improvising so she forgets her stage-fright.

Mackenzie Davis (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, What If) Her What If wild child was oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, albeit interpolated with Daisy Buchanan, and was strikingly different from her reserved bookworm subtly using her wits to escape a noir nightmare in We Gotta.

Runners Up:

Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbours) It’s always a joy when Byrne gets to use her native Australian accent, and she swaggered with such foul-mouthed comedic assurance that at times Seth Rogen became her foil as the sensible one in their marriage.

Agyness Deyn (Electricity) Deyn was a commanding presence. She grabbed with both hands this defiant character, who wears short dresses and fluorescent jacket; drawing the eye to a body covered in cuts; and had no vanity in showing these effects of seizures.

Also Placed:

Juno Temple (Magic Magic) Temple reprised some elements of her naïf in Killer Joe, though thankfully she was less over-exposed here, and made her character’s steady descent into insomniac madness chillingly plausible.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey’s physical commitment to the role was jaw-dropping, initially rake-thin before then wasting away before your eyes to harrowing effect. Initially unsympathetic, he patiently revealed the hidden softer side which engaged Dr Eve, and beautifully developed an unlikely and most affecting friendship with Rayon.

Runners Up:

Daniel Radcliffe (What If) Radcliffe is sensational as the hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness this was a comic role of unexpected substance.

Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) It’s hard to imagine anyone else, save 1973 Elliot Gould, pulling off this role quite as well. The Ruffalo exudes immense shambolic charm, shuffling about in scruffy clothes, doing permit-free guerrilla location live music recording that would make Werner Herzog proud.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for all concerned Stevens burns a hole in the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance – playing scenes tongue-in-cheek serious as the charismatic helpful stranger.

Also Placed:

Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) Affleck as an actor too often contentedly coasts, and (even when gifted zingers as in Argo) acts as a still centre. But, with Fincher pushing him with endless takes, he was fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws.

Pal Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, In Order of Disappearance) The imposing Norwegian perfectly captured old-fashioned grit, naive enthusiasm, and quiet heroism as Thor Heyerdahl, and then played crime-lord The Count as an epically self-pitying vegan equally stressed by divorced parenting with his ex-wife, and a nasty turf war with Serbian mobsters.

September 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff finally follows up Garden State, but his second film as director suggests he needed Kickstarter money for reasons other than control of casting…

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Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor who hasn’t worked for quite some time. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports his dream financially with her boring job, and his disappointed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition to send Aidan’s children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a private school. The catch is it’s a Hebrew private school, leading to a religious divide between the three generations with Aidan and Sarah out in the non-kosher cold. When Gabe’s cancer returns Aidan is forced to attempt to simultaneously home-school his children to save money, reconcile his equally underachieving brother Noah (Josh Gad) with Gabe while there’s time, defend his wife against her sleazy co-worker Jerry (Michael Weston), defeat rival actor Paul (Jim Parsons) for a lucrative role, and deal with the infuriating Rabbis Twersky (Allan Rich) and Rosenberg (Alexander Chaplin)…

It’s been nine and a half years since Garden State was released here, but all those skills are still there. The indie musical cues, the deadpan comedy, the unexpected drama – all stand present and correct, but the novelty and charm are gone. Braff’s script with his brother Adam is terribly muddled. Wish I Was Here, despite an unlikely Othello gag, isn’t very funny, and some sequences (Braff pretending to be an old Hispanic…) are just uncomfortable, because, shockingly, Braff’s not very likeable. There’s a crudity to these Brothers Bloom, and even Noah’s crush Janine (an unrecognisable Ashley Greene), that is quite off-putting; and which makes the sub-plot with Jerry problematic, despite a delightfully unexpected touch, because it needs more context for us to understand why only his ribaldry is unacceptable. In fact everything feels like it needs more context, but the film already feels far longer than its 106 minutes; it is that unenviable paradox – both too short and too long. And it also rehashes scenes we’ve seen done better in Studio 60 (the unexpected positive result of a disinterested mitzvah) and Modern Family (the underprepared casual adult teacher being supplanted at the blackboard by his smarter driven student relative).

Wish I Was Here attempts to deal with heavy themes, but Gabe’s terminal illness is terribly manipulative, to the point that you’d reject Aidan and Noah reconciling with him as a mere plot contrivance, because it doesn’t feel earned. Braff is no Michael Chabon when it comes to scrutinising American Jewish identity. The glibly sarcastic agnosticism of Braff and Hudson’s characters is largely the reason they’re acted off the screen by Patinkin and King. Braff seems unaware that proudly reminiscing to the sincere and kindly Rabbi Rosenberg about how he had a double bacon cheeseburger right after his Bar Miztvah is more likely to make us sympathise with Gabe’s disappointment than cheer on Aidan. Aidan and Sarah admit they have no identity, no advice, no metaphysical certainty; all Tucker has learnt is Aidan’s flip attitude. Gabe has bequeathed Grace the Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity. Aidan belatedly ripostes by reciting ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by TS Eliot… Joyce wanted applause for his Jewish hero in Ulysses, but his Bloom ate a pork kidney because Joyce, like Braff, lacked the imaginative empathy to create a hero who took his faith seriously.

Garden State was an unexpected gem, but Wish I Was Here suggests that Braff has actually emotionally regressed as a writer since even as his ambition has soared ahead.

2/5

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