Now Playing — Lady Bird

lady bird

Greta Gerwig has officially been a film director previously, sharing that role with indie film stalwart Joe Swanberg on the 2008 feature Nights and Weekends. Her writing credits are more extensive, ranging from her breakthrough in the low-key breakthrough Hannah Takes the Stairs (directed by Swanberg) through to fruitful collaborations with  director Noah Baumbach. Hell, Gerwig’s IMDb page even lists her as a contributing writer on the infamous, aborted How I Met Your Mother spinoff in which she starred. So when Gerwig’s Lady Bird is positioned as a directorial debut, it’s somewhat technically accurate, but also highly misleading. Lady Bird is only the latest evidence in the compelling argument that Gerwig is a brilliant filmmaker. The real difference is that Lady Bird is so good, it becomes the equivalent of the smoking gun in this particular case.

The new film follows roughly a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior in Sacramento, beginning in 2002. Lady Bird attends a Catholic private school, straining the bank account of her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, both stellar), but they insist because of the violence her older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) witnessed at the public high school. As is common with individuals on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird is trying on different identities — dallying with theater and tiptoeing into different friend groups — all while pining after the erudite promises of East Coast colleges.

There’s nothing all that novel about the basic mechanics of Gerwig’s story (she also wrote the original screenplay). Variants of this coming of age tale have been told repeatedly on the screen, including the swerve away from trusted pals in favor of the popular kids, the inevitable disappointments delivered by dreamy boys, and the heated conflicts with parents. In execution, though, Gerwig makes the film sing with perfectly calibrated humor and deeply authentic observation. For one thing, Lady Bird features an uncommonly real depiction of the late teenage years, when adulthood beckons, but there’s also a familiar, automatic comfort in being a chattering, giggly kid.

Ronan, unsurprisingly, works wonders as Lady Bird. She shows the yearning behind the petulance and the vulnerability that is armored by bravado. She deploys the wry comic lines with crack timing and is especially strong in showing how arguments escalate through the use of long-stored verbal weapons, the latter best showcased in her acting duets with Metcalf. Lady Bird is smart, but cursed by still having so much to figure out, a common ailment at her age. Importantly, she is stubborn, but she learns, finding the graciousness to understand those who’ve caused her pain, such as her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, even better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea).

Gerwig’s writing is strong, and her directorial skills are a gratifying match. The pacing is exemplary, and Gerwig has a striking yet unfussy visual sense. She knows how to let a scene build and how to cap a moment with just the right note, be it funny or melancholy or moving. Lady Bird holds an obviously personal story, but Gerwig presents it with a level of specificity that expands it into the universal. Of course Gerwig delivers on that front. That’s what great filmmakers do.

Now Playing — Thor: Ragnarok

thor ragnarok

Approaching the ten year mark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s increasingly difficult — for me, anyway — to examine the offerings from the comic book publisher turned moviemaking behemoth outside of the context of their making. Taken on its own terms, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable piece of product. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than the previous two films that bore the thunder god’s name in their titles.

Taking a comfy story of Asgardian throne game drama and melding it with an loose adaptation of the popular comic book storyline “Planet Hulk” — which found the green goliath referenced in the title (and played in the MCU by Mark Ruffalo) exiled to an alien planet where he becomes a gladiator — the new outing continues the practice of piling in more plot than any two hours should be expected to bear. It also repeats the little miracle of earlier Marvel movies of making the overstuffed proceedings feel lithe and balanced. While allowing room for many of the figures introduced in prior Thor and Thor-adjacent films, it introduces a small fleet of new characters and nothing less than a whole other world.

All in all, the film asks a lot of director Taika Waititi. If his timing isn’t always spot-on in alternating between his dual story lines — taking place, it must be noted, light years apart — he still keeps the proceedings brisk and buoyant.  Like Patty Jenkins and Jon Watts before him this year, Waititi demonstrates that making the leap from low-budget features to blockbuster spectacle need not be an impossible task. Stick with the known fundamentals of narrative filmmaking and scale them up. Ocean waves are bigger than those on a vast lake, but either way it’s just about steering the ship.

As well as the director acquits himself with the action sequences — most notably the centerpiece battle between two friends from work — Waititi was clearly brought in to loosen up the franchise. He achieves that marvelously. Thor: Ragnarok is playful and funny, borrowing some of the near-spoofery of the Guardians of the Galaxy films but infusing it with Waititi’s particular sensibility, built on disguising the bawdy as sweet and vice versa. He exploits the crack comic timing of his actors — especially Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, as the godly sibling Thor and Loki, respectively — and adds a teeming basket of ludicrous understatement. As much as any Marvel film that’s come before it, Thor: Ragnarok taps into the page-turning fun of the art form it draws upon.

And yet I’ll admit that I often felt outside of the film rather than enfolded in it. As I watched, I spent as much time thinking about what the various choices said about the state of the current MCU as I did simply being jostled by the film’s thrill ride energy. As the film was in progress, I reflected on the way Cate Blanchett’s Hela continued the perplexing Marvel movie tradition of pitting heroes against underwhelming villains. (And add this film to Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and the J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations by Peter Jackson to make the surprising but now compelling case that Blanchett does her weakest work in big ol’ popcorn movies.) I enjoyed Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, but mostly in anticipation of how she might interact with some of the other kick-ass females that have cropped up in sister films. I thought about how Waititi’s distinctive stamp represented the studio’s ongoing gradual shift from the tight tonal control that threatened to make their movies into a series of familiar beat adventures. And I took pleasure in the heavy borrowing from artist Jack Kirby, less because of the artfulness of the transfer than in gratitude for the way Marvel’s former animus toward their most important founding father has faded completely away.

In the end, I wrestle with my own longterm fandom when I watch these movies. I think the works should divert me from that instinct, and they instead feed it. I want Thor: Ragnarok to whisk me away. Disappointingly, it meets me where I am.

Playing Catch-Up — Get Low; Ex Libris: New York Public Library; What We Do in the Shadows

get low

Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009). A wry comic drama all baled up in folksy charms, Get Low is so thoroughly pitched toward star Robert Duvall’s strengths that its difficult to imagine the film existing in a universe without him. Duvall plays Felix, a curmudgeonly man living a hermit’s life in the woods outside small Southern community in the nineteen-thirties. He emerges from his seclusion in order to stage an early funeral, presumably so he can hear what the townsfolk might say about him. Eventually, it becomes clear that Felix is really using the event as a means to edge toward a confession about the dire mistake that sent him guiltily into solitude in the first place. Aaron Schneider presents the material with a personality-free base capability that makes the already drab material settle into a misty Hallmark Channel doze. There are some nicely lived-in performances among the supporting cast — Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek are the strongest — but the lead role too often invites Duvall to resort to colorful indulgence, a tactic Schneider clearly welcomes.

 

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Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017). On the basis of the grumbling reactions of the viewers around me at the completion of Frederick Wiseman’s latest direct cinema documentary, I feel compelled to emphasize that the venerable filmmaker’s lengthy, firmly unadorned approach to depicting the workings of the New York Public Library might not be to everyone’s liking. It’s effectively the polar opposite of Michael Bay: all substance, no bombast. To me, Ex Libris is an object of near-endless fascination as it quietly, insistently makes the case for libraries as vital hubs for communities. They are founts of learning, erudition, support, and engagement in an era of hollowed-out spectacle and venomous anti-intellectualism in the broader culture. With methodical care, Wiseman observes the myriad ways the New York institution bolsters the citizenry, including after-school programs, senior citizen engagement, and implementing a municipal program to provide internet access to people who would otherwise be in digital darkness. Because Wiseman simply points his camera and avoids edits for as long as he can, interest is always prone to waning if he spends too much time in an area the viewer finds dull. I had no problem with the repeated and necessarily repetitive administrative meetings, but the slam poem — which usefully demonstrates the diversity of library programming — felt endless to me. A recent Twitter dust-up about the viability of libraries ended with the dimwitted pundit who initiated the whole thing conceding defeat in the face of heated counterarguments. He could have saved himself a lot of grief had he watched Wiseman’s documentary before opening up his tweet-hole. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone could sit through the film’s three-plus hours without coming to the iron-clad determination that the enduring institutions are a pure public good.

 

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What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014). I had to do a little homework before my weekend moviegoing, you see. This comedy — structured as a rundown Real World with vampires sharing a flat — is understandably adored by many. I find it hit-or-miss, but the hits are plentiful and usually strong enough to make the clunkers wholly forgivable. Co-director Waititi is especially funny as the sweetest, most vulnerable member of the blood-sucking household. Waititi and co-director Jemaine Clement also deserve praise for actually building discernible, engaging storylines into a comedic approach that usually default to scattershot plotting designed to leave room for whatever random assemblage of gags are generated during the filming process. The clearest comic victory, though, comes from the crew of werewolves led by a genially insistent alpha played by Rhys Darby. The humor derived from the roaming pack of lycanthropes is the most inspired realization of the film’s merging of the fantastical and the mundane.

Playing Catch-Up — Columbus, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Miles Ahead

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Columbus (Kogonada, 2017). The feature debut from filmmaker Kogonada, who has been justly lauded for video essays on other directors’ work, is an object of understated beauty. Empathetic and honest, Columbus is set in the Indiana city of the same name that is an unlikely touchtone for fans of modernist architecture. Jin (John Cho) comes to town because his architect-scholar father has been hospitalized. Aggravated about his familial requirement to dote upon an ill parent who wasn’t especially loving to him, Jin is somewhat aimless in the community, at least until he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who is stuck in neutral shortly after high school, although she clearly has the intellect to prosper if she moved on to higher education. The two have gentle, talky encounters that recall the cerebral cerebral meanderings of Richard Linklater’s film series that began with Before Sunrise, just with a little less grad school posturing. The film is warm and endearing. It’s also the clear product of a film fan who’s spent a lot of time thinking about how some of the masters of the form framed their images. Even as Kogonada immediately establishes himself as filmmaker of great insight and care, the true standout of Columbus is Richardson. Operating with an emotional delicacy and fascinating naturalism, Richardson gives a great, deep performance, subtly displaying a myriad of layers to her character.

 

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The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017). Noah Baumbach is in familiar territory with The Meyerowitz Stories (News and Selected), depicting a New York City family of thwarted artists and painted intellectuals, scuffling with their own insecurities and giving each other deep emotional bruises along the way. In proper reflection of the title, the film moves with the ache of a rueful, bleakly funny collection of interconnected short stories, a little John Salinger, a little John Cheever, and a little Woody Allen in his wordsmith mode. The actors all make a lush pastrami meal out of Baumach’s caustically funny dialogue, even Adam Sandler, who delivers what is arguably his first good performance on film (and, no, I’m not forgetting about Punch-Drunk Love). As the family’s patriarch, Dustin Hoffman has his best role in years and makes the most of it.

 

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Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015). In one way or another, the notion of Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis on film had kicked around for about fifteen years before the skilled actor finally took matters into his own hands. Besides playing the jazz legend — one of the rare figures in the history of music who can legitimately be called a genius — Cheadle contributed to the screenplay and directed Miles Ahead, his feature debut in that role. Cheadle is predictably strong as Davis, but the film is misguided, layering in fictional escalated action that might allow for easy access to the flaring flaws of the man, but also play as deeply phony. And the film is burdened by leaning into the cliches within Davis’s personal history, such as the haunting presence of a one-time love (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the penchant for self-destruction. There are moments of quiet insight — such as Davis rediscovering his artistic soul in a brief collaborative jam with a younger musician (Lakeith Stanfield) — but they are brief and too quickly disregarded in favor of dull narrative tricks.

Now Playing — Blade Runner 2049

blade runner

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for a film to be laudably ambitious, resolutely intelligent, clompingly obvious, and archly indifferent at the same time. But here we have Blade Runner 2049, a distant sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction thriller of the same name, sans the date. A middling performer in its day — critically and commercially — the original Blade Runner has had an unimaginably long reach. It can be reasonably that it stands collectively with Scott’s Alien and the first Star Wars trilogy as the most influential cinematic works of the latter half of the twentieth century. It probably should have been left alone, free from both Scott’s cranky tinkering and any stab at extending the story. Of course, that’s not the way the entertainment world works.

Blade Runner 2049 at least insists on being complicated, even more than was the case with the first film. Returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher teams with Michael Green to craft a script dense with heavy topics of futurecasted humanity. Based, loosely, on a Philip K. Dick novel, the first film outing of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was enamored with the task of visioning the urban landscape of the future, but the replicants driving the plot were largely just robots, there to give the hero something to shoot at. Looking at it now, there’s remarkably little weight giving to the plight of the machines invested with simulated spirit. Artificial intelligence is convenience for the narrative, not a topic to be pondered.

The sequel inverts the priorities. As realized by director Denis Villeneuve, the sequences in which the film gives way to action are half-hearted and overlong. They play like set pieces that someone meant to circle back around to and instill a little purpose. When the story turns to the particulars of programmed existences — best realized by Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram-based romantic companion, and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant engaged in fierce competition for superiority — the film vividly engages, even as it sometimes introduces more ideas than it can reasonably contain.

It also isn’t quite as mysterious and twisty as the filmmakers seem to think. The main plot concerns a quest to find a unique replicant, one who came into the world in a manner so unique that, as characters sternly explain, it will change everything. In pursuit is a replicant known familiarly as K (Ryan Gosling). The discoveries he makes are obviously seedlings that will sprout up to plot twists aspiring toward mind-bending shock. But there’s no stealth to the storytelling. Plot points are signaled as such, and it’s easy to see which theories are being wheeled into place just to be toppled down one act later.

When the film’s narrative mechanics start to grind, redemption is found in the smashing visuals. Villeneuve deserves credit, but the clear MVP is cinematography Roger Deakins, delivering yet another glorious treatise of the power of light, shadow, and color. Even at its most rickety, astonishing expertise in on display in Blade Runner 2049, which is perhaps the clearest resemblance it bears to its ancestor. Like the earlier film, it is as striking in its imperfections as in its achievements. Call it legacy.

Now Playing: Battle of the Sexes

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On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, with great ceremonial adornments, strode to the center of the playing field of the Houston Astrodome, where a tennis court had been put in place. The event was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” and it was fraught with import. An exhibition game, it carried the onus of standing in for the still insurgent women’s lib movement — as well as the aggrieved countermeasures of those who took ugly pride in calling themselves male chauvinist pigs — or at least it did once King emerged triumphant in straight sets.

The new film Battle of the Sexes revives the sense of celebration. Directed by the team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton — who together helmed the art house sensation Little Miss Sunshine —  the movie depicts the frenzy of female empowerment that led up to a reluctant King (Emma Stone) relenting to the overtures of Riggs (Steve Carell) to face him in a publicity stunt event. In the reckoning of the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire and, for a time, a regular collaborator of director Danny Boyle), King saw the social weight the match could carry, especially since she was deeply engaged in the then-upstart Women’s Tennis Association in an attempt to earn some level of pay equity for the athletes outfitted in skirts as they whacked balls over a tightly-string net. For Riggs, the event was a stunt, an extension of his hustler mentality. For King — and her sisterhood — it was a chance to prove worthiness to be viewed as athletes engaged in competition, rather than some cute sideshow to the men’s game.

The signal accomplishment of the film is the way it conveys the serious undercurrents of the spectacle sports event by sharply focusing on what it mean to King, both as a personal test and a social statement. Stone is marvelous in the role, largely eschewing affectations of impression to instead burrow deep into the character of King. (Carell is also good as Riggs, though he leans more on the physical trappings and other transported tics afforded him.) The obsessive nature of a competitor is present throughout, but Stone wisely tempers the drive with pings of uncertainty. Stone’s version of King knows that all the self-determination in the world might not be enough to prevent a crucial serve from landing on the wrong side of the line.

The film is engaging and sparks with charm, especially in the first half as King and her cohorts address the blatant sexism of their sport’s chief executives by striking out on their own. (A cracking performance by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, one of the masterminds of the WTA, bolsters these sequences mightily.) The ambitions of the filmmakers prove to be more than the film can comfortably contain. King’s tentative awakening to her romantic preference for women is depicted with such aching tenderness that it becomes dreadfully dull, especially since Andrea Riseborough is given only the barest sketch of a person to play as the tennis star’s hairdresser paramour. Where much of the rest of the film is deft, this subplot is didactic, capped off by Alan Cumming’s tennis outfit designer providing a wistful pep talk on the hopeful future ahead for the GLBTQ community that feels like it should conclude with him smiling warmly and dissolving into a cloud of glittery magic dust. The personal travails of Riggs off the courts hold a similar narrative stagnancy.

Battle of the Sexes is at its most cunning when it simply lets the dullard sexism of the era be held up like a foggy photographic slide to the light. For all the buffoonish machismo of Riggs (who was engaged more in colorful showmanship than actual expression of belief, the film argues) or oily misogyny of tennis executive Jack Barker (Bill Pullman), the on-air commentary of Howard Cosell — retrieved from the ABC Sports archives and sprinkled generously throughout the film’s depiction of the main event — is the most damning evidence offered. Whether he’s dismissing elements of King’s game, condescending to tennis star and co-announcer Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), or basically saying King could be pretty if she tried, Cosell epitomizes the cultural crudity that demanded a battle like this to be fought in the first place.

 

Now Playing: It

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I remember when Stephen King’s novel It was first published, in 1986. Then only a dozen years into his career as a novelist — but already claiming nearly twenty books to his credit —  King was an unstoppable force in the world of popular fiction. The tome was his first length work under only his own name since the absolute blockbuster Pet Sematary, three years earlier. On the King time line of astounding prolificness, that may as well have been an eon. Appropriately, then, the book he delivered, It, read like a magnum opus, a compendium of everything he’d done to that point packed tightly into over 1,110 pages. Alternating between the forlorn persecution felt in youth and the tart disappointment of encroaching middle, the story included so many elements familiar from the author’s previous efforts that it was like sort of Stephen King gumbo, cooked up on the foundation of a dark, dark roux.

The books also, to my recollection, wasn’t all that good. Although I concede it contained one of the few instances of King’s writing genuinely leaving me scared, it was also a tangled mess, the narrative a cyclone that spun forever without ever picking up speed or strength. Its endurance as a favorite entry in King’s bibliography is baffling to me. Surely, there was no reason to expect that a belated film adaption — itself arriving nearly three decades after a television version — would be a success. Movies were once the province of King like few other authors, but those days are long gone, with only the occasional stab at transferring a book to the screen making an appearance, mostly to wan curiosity.

And yet here we are, with a new stab at It proving to be that rarest of beasts at the U.S. box office: a flat-out sensation. The film’s second weekend would have set a record for biggest of September, and the number of feats it will be able to claim by the time it’s done — already It is the highest-grossing horror film of all time — boggles the quivering mind. How the Castle Rock did this happen?

Well, the movie is surprisingly good, even if occasionally tripped up by the problems that are cooked right into the original story. (Thankfully, the most egregious narrative misstep has been excised entirely.) Director Andy Muschetti — who previously presided over Mama, for which I have a surprising, lingering fondness — brings a welcome visual panache to the proceedings, shrewdly determining when the film would benefit from a touch of Spielbergian nostalgia (cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and score composed Benjamin Wallfisch are able co-conspirators on this mission) and when it needs the edging creepiness of modern, CGI-reinforced horror. The occasional plot lumpiness of the screenplay (credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) is redeemed by the lowbrow naturalness of the dialogue. The misfit kids in the movie talk the way misfit kids talked in the nineteen-eighties. I type the preceding sentence with some field-tested authority.

The smartest decision made by the filmmakers was to cut out half of the book. King alternated between the kids in late nineteen-fifties and them as adults nearly thirty years later. It, the film, sticks with the kids, bumping the era forward to the summer of 1989. A focus the novel lacked is decisively present in the movie. And there’s an added brutal poignancy to parallels between the metaphysical horrors delivered by Pennywise the evil clown (Bill Skarsgård) and the all too real miseries inflicted by parents, bullies, and authority figures. It helps that Muschetti coaxes solid performances out of his youthful performers, with especially admirable turns from Jack Dylan Grazer (as the eternally fretful Eddie), Sophia Lillis (as the tomboy dream girl Beverly), and Stranger Things carry-over Finn Wolfhard (as motormouth Richie).

To damn with praise so faint it flickers into near-nothingness, It immediately stands as one of the strongest King adaptations, horror division. (Interestingly, given how he’s made his name, King’s more straightforward material has fared better in the journey to film over the years.) That could be why It has broken through like no other adaptation of King’s work. The film is imperfect, peppered with plot holes, and reliant on characterizations that sometimes lean on well-worn archetypes. The same shortcomings can be found in much of King’s writing, including novels that are adored by loads of people, including me. After all this time, and across countless adaptations, the basic methodology for transferring King’s commercial success at bookstores to the movie box office turned out to be incredibly simple. Respect the material. There have been better films sporting King’s name, but few have felt like a more honest realization of his base creative vision.