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

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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.

Now Playing — Blade Runner 2049

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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.

Now Playing — mother!

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I have my own theory about the genesis of mother!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky. My supposition is supported by no investigative evidence, and it surely isn’t accurate. But it helps me make sense of the sprawling madness that spills across the screen. In my fictionalized version of the creative process, Aronofsky wrote about half the script and surveyed what he had. He saw a gleefully devious horror thriller, following a writer and his wife in a rambling, remote house. Their solitude is disrupted when a stranger arrives, claiming he was mistakenly told there were accommodations for rent. More strangers arrive, motives are questioned, secrets emerge.

Aronofsky looks at all this material — unsettling but somewhat conventional, or at least with the tinge of the familiar — and ruminates. “What is this really about?” he asks. The answer comes to him. It is about the creative process, especially the agony of the artist — the creator — as he experiences the nourishing pleasures of mass adoration, perhaps at the expense of personal relationships. Those individuals he has deigned to let into the closer circles of his existence simply — selfishly, really — don’t understand the symbiotic relationship an artist has with those who truly, madly, deeply breathe in his work. And any artist, when you get right down to it, is basically like God. Because when operating with an inflated sense of self-importance, one may as well go all the way.

Armed with this enhanced perception of the themes he’s developed, Aronofsky starts in on the second half of the film. And he really commits to it.

Characteristically, Aronofsky revels in the most lunatic notions sputtered out by his toxic id, lobbing them onto the screen in flagrant defiance of good taste and — far more problematically — any sort of narrative logic. When presented with a certain amount of restraint across the film’s first half, Aronofsky’s vision earns comparisons to some admirable forefathers, such as Dario Argento and David Cronenberg (in particular, there’s an especially troublesome blood stain on a hardwood floor that could have come straight out one of the horror offerings of the latter). There’s still a disjointedness, mostly because the actors have varying levels of success injecting personality into their desperately empty characters: Michelle Pfeiffer is vividly alive, Javier Bardem is surprisingly adrift, Ed Harris is somewhere in between.

Then there’s the star of our feature. Whatever else can be said about her performance, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t timid. In a manner that undoubtedly strikes Aronofsky as uncompromising rather than untoward, the story treats Lawrence’s character as a leather speed bag. After every blow, Lawrence is required to immediately ricochet back to receive another. It looks exhausting, but — through no fault of Lawrence’s — that’s not the same as great acting. It’s a longtime flaw of Aronofsky’s, stretching all the way back to Requiem for a Dream, in which the grueling outcomes endured by the main characters had no impact that connected to them as fictional beings. Had each of the actors waved wearily, punched out, and shuffled out of the frame to be replaced by all new performers, the queasy sensation of watching the final moments play out would have been exactly the same. That’s a problem, and it’s arguably an abdication of the filmmaker’s responsibility.

But mother! anticipates these complaints — any complaints, really — and refutes them. If I don’t like what Aronofsky has crafted, then it is decidedly my own fault. Like the women who move interchangeably through the artist’s life, excavated for their love, I am foolishly blind to the gifts being bestowed upon eager crowds. I don’t properly grasp the brilliant biblical symbolism or the allegories to nature ravaged by callous humanity. Any problems couldn’t possibly be him, so they must be me. That argument so thoroughly built into mother! that the whole messy spectacle is a defense mechanism stretched to two lurid hours.

The film has been so divisive that Paramount executives have felt obligated to defend its very existence, or at least its perplexing inclusion in their 2017 slate, which otherwise includes the likes of Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight. While pointing out there are plenty of people ready to celebrate the film’s daring, the studio’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, Megan Colligan, offered an acknowledgement that there is strong contrary sentiment among viewers. “The hatred is real,” she said, in part. I don’t have much help to offer the Paramount marketing team, but in this I can back them up.

Now Playing: Logan Lucky

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No matter how vociferously the retirement was emphasized and how many venomous arrows were projected in the general direction of the modern movie industry, there was little doubt Steven Soderbergh would eventually find his way back to the big screen as a director. Four years after his last feature, the odd pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects, Soderbergh has decided to give moviemaking another go with Logan Lucky, a movie with enough echoes of his greatest commercial successes that he was all but obligated to cheekily reference it in the dialogue. When a set of bedraggled Southerners pulls of a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s dubbed by newscasters “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.”

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, one-third of a set of siblings who call back to skills acquired in a slightly checkered past when fortune has turned against them. Jimmy recruits his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), his sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), and a small set of additional co-conspirators (included an incarcerated bomb expert, played with zest by Daniel Craig) into his major scheme, which included a stealth jailbreak, an electronic payment system sabotage (to maximize how much cash is moving through the targeted facility), and a procession of intricate toppling dominoes that lead to a windfall of ill-gotten gains. As is often the case with such narratives, about two-thirds of the elaborate details in the screenplay are cunningly inventive and the remaining chunk drastically strain credibility. (The screenplay is credited to Rebecca Blunt, which is a whole other mess.) Effective suspension of disbelief will vary.

Soderbergh clicks all the pieces into place with consummate craft, displaying an enduring touch for moments of offhand wit. He also can’t entirely disguise the nasty divots in the film’s tundra. There are stretches that simply don’t work, either because of clumsy acting (Hilary Swank continues her baffling trend of giving terrible performances in nearly everything except for the two films for which she justly won Oscars), superfluous plot material (the drama surrounding a children’s beauty pageant), or both (this is where I’ll type the name Seth MacFarlane and move on). It’s as if Soderbergh was hoping for the overstuffed verve found in a comic crime novel by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard (who he’s adapted beautifully in the past). There’s fiercely shrewd editing to those books, though, culling the material down to the essentials. Logan Lucky is entertaining, but essential it is not.