Lady Bird (2017)

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Greta Gerwig has a deep connection with Sacramento that I failed to appreciate when I first saw her in Frances Ha (2012). In that film, she’s making a life for herself in New York but stops off in Paris and returns home to the west coast. Now with Gerwig directing in lieu of Noah Baumbach, we have the inverse and the affection on display is indisputable.

A young woman resides in Sacramento with dreams of the culture of the east coast, namely New York. It’s the old story. We rarely appreciate where we come from or who we have in our lives until we have to leave and say goodbye. There’s no place like home.

Although I lived in California most of my life, it’s a big place and I do not know Sacramento intimately and yet I can deeply admire someone who does and takes care in portraying it on screen. It’s hardly a touch-up job but Lady Bird exudes an agreeable rose-colored nostalgia.

We are reminded that this is the post 9/11 generation which barely had cell phones and was still listening to “Crash Into Me” and Justin Timberlake. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I certainly recall the aftermath which will never be wiped from my memory. However, I increasingly realize fewer of my generation remember this era and so for me it’s a type of period piece that I can appreciate first hand.

There’s something about the story that evokes Anne of Green Gables for me. It is a mother-daughter movie. Our heroine Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has a gripping personality and like her predecessor desires a name change, in this case, Lady Bird. It leads to heated conflict with her mother and yet there’s a father too who has an affable spirit to play peacekeeper. We grow to appreciate them all.

The opening conversation between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is so very honest in capturing how as human beings we are so quick to cycle through emotions – bonding, loving, then arguing and instantly annoyed. I heard talk in an interview Gerwig gave about her writing process. It wasn’t so much about hitting all the right beats at first. She wrote so many pages and lived with the characters and let them take her where they would. In this regard, there’s a three-dimensional even lived in quality to each individual that cannot be fabricated. Far from being types, they overlap and interact in ways that feel refreshing and authentic.

The parents actually have an integral place in the lives of their children. They are not relegated to being killjoys or caricatures. There’s hard and fast truth to both Metcalf and Tracy Letts as they exquisitely inhabit their roles. There’s none of that leaving out a parent conveniently to make it easier to write for. Lady Bird pays respect to all of its characters much as it does its setting.

The best friend is another well-trod trope and you wonder if there’s any way to create something that has not already been done. Lady Bird and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) relationship sums it up precisely. As they quarrel, get involved in theater, and dance and daydream about all the things you’re supposed to. Eating unconsecrated communion wafers, feet in the air, backs on the floor chatting. It’s endearing and what we all craved in high school, whether we had that person or not.

Then, of course, there has to be the love interest. And yet again Lady Bird does something far more realistic. There’s not just one boy but two. The theatrical one, Danny (Lucas Hedges), from a big Irish family and then the hipster nonconformist one, Kyle (Timothy Chalamet), who can be found playing bass, smoking, and reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a cafe. And even by the end, we never know which one was better for her. That’s not the point.

They were all part of her discovering more of herself. You even have the cool girl who everyone tries to suck up to. She’s entitled and has a hunk boyfriend and her parents don’t care what she does but even she has some humanity and a moral code. She’s not the devil’s incarnate. None of these characters are. As one who has dabbled in writing coming-of-age fiction with varying degrees of success, I recognize the ability of someone who is able to balance the economy of the genre with something that feels so resonant. It captures that expanse of time that is high school colorfully and with a degree of variedness. There is little chaff.

Like some of its immersive and empathetic brethren — The 400 Blows (1959), American Graffiti (1973), and Boyhood (2014) spring to mind — Lady Bird is not simply a coming-of-age story from the female perspective but an eloquent articulation of the human experience.

It’s also a film of benevolent spirituality. It’s set at a Catholic high school with some of the hallmarks we might recognize — uniforms, mass, communion. But it never feels like a mere punchline and those in positions of authority are generally warm and understanding.

The bright-eyed sister (a venerable Lois Smith) shares her love of Aquinas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard. Later she’s the victim of Lady Bird’s practical joke to try to gain a new friend. She plasters a sign on the sister’s car reading “Just Married to Jesus.” At a later date, it gets brought up matter-of-factly, the sister smiling at the joke but noting it’s been at least 40 years.

She is the perfect embodiment of a spiritual leader, leading by example and a heavy dose of compassion. She nudges her students but there’s also enough sense to realize ultimately they will have to figure it out. I did have a momentary flash of how perfect it would have been to cast Dolores Hart in the role but that’s hardly a complaint mind you. I also felt compelled to quote Kierkegaard’s journalings right about now and so I will. He penned the following:

“Of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points–if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life… I certainly do not deny that I still accept the imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”

I’m not sure if I have anything to add to his words but they just feel applicable to all of us. And Christine gets somewhere in her personal journey. In one moment, she’s finally made the move to New York and like all good insecure college students, she’s having a drunken conversation with a dude about God. He asserts that he doesn’t believe that there is one. Then she mumbles to herself how people don’t think there’s a God and yet they so readily take on the arbitrary names their parents choose for them.

Eventually, she wanders by a church on a Sunday morning after a short stint in the hospital (nothing too serious) and stays to enjoy the choir. But in a moment of realization, she walks out and calls up her mom to reconcile because she recognizes how important that relationship is to her life. She’s willing to acknowledge her affection for her mom which is a step toward greater understanding and love.

Lady Bird paints in warmth and laughter, anger and tears, that all have deep abiding roots in the love of family and friends. That’s how a film about a red-haired teenager in Sacramento could manage to be for all of us. I want to see it again already as I know my esteem for it will only rise.

4/5 Stars

Isle of Dogs (2018)

IsleOfDogsFirstLook.jpgIt only became apparent to me after the fact that Isle of Dogs sounds quite close to “I love dogs.” You might even say there was a certain amount of forethought in this play on words. However, the pun only works in English as the Japanese pronunciation of the comparable kanji is “Inu ga shima.” Here we have the inherent beauty and simultaneously what some would deem the problematic nature of Wes Anderson’s latest film in a nutshell.

It’s necessary to lay out how I come at Isle of Dogs because it does contribute to how I perceive it. I’m Japanese-American. I’ve lived in Japan. I know some of the language though it’s an admittedly meager amount. However, I’ve invested in the culture and care about its people and fostering cross-cultural bonds. That’s part of the reason I was drawn to live there for an extended period of time, more than any pop culture infatuation with anime and manga. In those regards, I’m very much American. I also revere Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and all the rest as most cinephiles do. There you are.

Wes Anderson is someone that I genuinely admire for his aesthetic though I would never necessarily sing his praises needlessly. He doesn’t need me to defend him nor do I look to. Still, when I consider Isle of Dogs I do not see a superficial homage. As with everything he does Anderson’s film feels fairly meticulous and the stop-motion creation is phenomenally precise. Beyond that, it’s infused with Japanese tradition. Certainly, there are markers that some might deem superficial like Taiko or sumo or cherry blossoms (さくら). They are all present. 

Thus, I do worry about people who have not interfaced with Japanese culture or the people. Specifically, the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), the foreign exchange student, feels problematic. I’ve met some folks like her where they let their own personalities take control of every situation and there seems to be no sensitivity or give and take. 

Because they don’t seem to have any sense of the culture they are in or at the very least they expect others to play by their rules. Hence why many Americans including myself are only fluent in one language. An example springs to mind of Tracy wandering into a bar and hollering at the man behind the counter in English that she wants chocolate milk. Then she berates a Japanese scientist (voiced by Yoko Ono) for not doing anything in opposition to the rampant government corruption. Again, in English. 

It was fascinating that I watched the film with an audience where the majority were Japanese so they were not ignorant of their country like Tracy or I might be. But how about viewers in another pocket of the world or even back home where I come from? The audiences saw a different movie altogether with different nuances and connotations.

Some people have noted rightly that a lot of the Japanese dialogue is lost because as the opening disclaimer notes: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” Except for the dogs, that’s a large margin for error.

Even the words of the little pilot, the intrepid boy Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) are all but lost on the dogs who don’t speak human and for me as well because, again, my Japanese leaves much to be desired. But the bottom line is that he almost always intuitively knows what the pack of alpha dogs is doing. 

They have a connection. He is looking for his faithful guard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schrieber) who has been cruelly deported by his distant uncle Mayor Kobayashi in his effort to rid the dystopian Japanese city of Megasaki of infectious dogs. Spots was the first of many canines to be deported to the putrid rubbish pile of Trash Island. There you have the film’s plot but it relies on the fact that the boy and the dogs work together.

It goes back to that core tenet of society that dog is man’s best friend. And strip away any amount of visual artistry or cultural layering and that fact remains universal. Kobayashi is a cat person and we surmise his decision was merely a vendetta against canines (going back generations) more than any scientific evidence would suggest. 

To be honest, it never feels like Anderson is putting out a giant placard with film references at least not like Tracy with her megaphone. If anything the film conjures up one of Japan’s great national heroes the faithful dog Hachiko. Any traveler to Tokyo will recognize his statue in Shibuya but he is a cultural icon — emblematic of the same bond expressed in this story.

It’s still an Anderson film and as such, I never get emotionally connected with the material (actually maybe I take that back; stop-motion dogs suffering is heartbreaking to watch) nor do I gel with his very personal idiosyncrasies all the time.

But somehow, though the film’s cultural representations and relationship with Japan are flawed, nevertheless it left me more impressed than anything. It seemed like a degree of care was taken. And in the end, this story of canines has moments that unquestionably do resonate with me.

I thought I would have more problems with all the quality voice talent distracting from the story itself and it happened at times where I was stuck on Jeff Goldblum or Bill Murray but more often than not it didn’t seem like one voice stole the show. It was a story that involved many voices.

Some that we are able to understand, others that we can only gather bits and pieces of. But for me personally, rather than that being a deterrent I find it fascinating that the same film can play differently for different audiences and that native Japanese speakers can be in on the movie in a way that I never could.

It’s not that we don’t deserve to know that part of the story necessarily or need to be singled out because we don’t know the language but isn’t that one of the confounding things about culture and language? Oftentimes we don’t understand one another and need to find points of mutual understanding. Things get lost in translation and I think one could make the argument that this happens in Isle of Dogs purposely.

Certainly, Wes Anderson doesn’t know Japanese culture like the back of his hand. In an interview, he said he’s been to Japan some but his references were namely Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. And yet if that is true, it still feels as if he’s surrounded himself with some voices different than his own even if his typical ensemble is in place.

We have Kunichi Nomura with input on the script and voice duty for Mayor Kobayashi. More include Akira Takayama, Mari Natsuki, Akira Ito and then better-known names like Nojiro Noda, Yoko Ono, and Ken Watanabe. That’s not to mention the countless other Japanese contributors whose names scrolled by with the end credits.

Admittedly this is only my perception of the film but when I watch it, I never feel like it is assuming the primacy of the English speaking audience or if it is then that assumption gets slyly subverted. I mentioned already that the character of Tracy often speaks in English, in her opposition to Mayor Kobayashi or to the man serving up drinks at the bar counter.

The implicit understanding is that the Japanese characters understand the English being spoken but they choose instead to respond in their native language. So they have met us half way but have we met them? Learning Japanese is difficult, maybe even impractical, but growing our cultural literacy comes in many forms that would only assist in deepening our ties with one another. Only later did I realize that Tracy, the “white savior” as it were, essentially fails in her attempts. If anything she needs the help of an audacious Atari, his guard dog, and the nameless hacker from her school. Without them she is powerless.

As is often the case, certain people use their voices and assertive personalities to push themselves into the limelight unwittingly but those people would be nothing without the taciturn heroes who willingly stay in the periphery until they need to stand up. While Tracy turns me off slightly in fiction and in real life, it’s the others like Atari that resonate with me. Just as the tale of dogs in both camaraderie and loyalty rings a universal note.

However, I realize only now that I didn’t talk much about the actual mechanics and formalistic aspects of the movie but I’ve spoken my peace. Do with it what you will.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Two articles that I found interesting on this topic were the following: What “Isle of Dogs” Gets Right About Japan and Justin Chang’s Isle of Dogs Review

 

20th Century Women (2016)

20th_Century_Women.pngIn his noted Crisis of Confidence Speech, incumbent president Jimmy Carter urged America that they were at a turning point in history: The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.

This also serves as a viable entry point into Mike Mills’ intimate, pensive eulogy, 20th Century Women. This is a film on the verge of so many things. It frames its story in the context of the time and the people that existed in one particular moment. Mills floods his canvas with natural light but also paints it with bold colors and plants us in this world that’s somehow tangible and present while still only being a memory to look back on.

It’s 1979. Nixon is slowly fading. Reagan is coming with his conservative boon. You have the Talking Heads. You have hardcore punk. Feminist novels and the woman’s movement. Skateboarding down the empty Santa Barbara roadways. It feels less like a time of change and more of a moment on the brink of something new.

But this very self-awareness in the era is provided by the characters who live within that context because this is their life, these are their memories, and they connect them together delving into the past and soaring forward to all that is yet to come. They recount the world they know through matter-of-fact voice-over to match the images that undoubtedly play in their own heads. This is for them. Namely a son and his mom, Dorthea and Jamie. There’s is a generational difference but not so much a divide.

Dorthea (Annette Bening) is an eccentric, dynamic, empathetic woman who cares deeply about life and others. She believes in each individual person’s rights and volition–you might even say she’s progressive in some ways. But she’s also a mom and a woman bred in a different age. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) makes a point of the fact that she’s from the Depression.

Giveaways include her chain smoking habit, a penchant for Bogart, and a predilection for show tunes. She was an aviator and draftswoman in a male-dominated world. But She came out of a time where the community was expected to look after everyone and she searches out the same framework for her son because he’s of a certain age.

If you were pressed to pick out the story’s inciting incident it might be the moment where Dorothea gathers the instrumental women in Jamie’s life around her kitchen table to enlist their help. Because the men around him either don’t resonate (Billy Crudup as William) or they only make their presence known on birthdays (namely Jamie’s father).

She takes a near death experience to mean he’s going through his adolescent phase and she doesn’t believe she can be all things for him anymore. As she notes later, they are better suited for the role because they get to see him in the world as a person. She will never get that. Oh, the heartaches of parenthood–being so invested–while simultaneously trying to be hands-off.

And so in some sense, her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and their teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) make a concerted effort to press into his life. Julie is the one who sneaks up through his window sometimes, not to sleep with him, though they often share the same bed, for mere companionship, someone to feel safe around and to talk to. Because he’s someone she knows can be trusted amid the fray of highschoolers.

In one particular sequence, Elle sits on the bed her eyes looking sullenly at Jamie as she tries to talk through their relationship. She concludes, “I think I’m too close to you to have sex with you.” In one sense, it’s touching because it shows that their connection goes beyond this physical act that all the kids are doing, she holds too much respect for him, but it also points to the sorry state of affairs when something like sex is seen as dirty and degraded. That’s part of what she is wrestling with. That and the fact that her therapist mother tries to conveniently label her every action.

Elle Fanning leaves a startling impression casting herself in this film in a light that in one sense is the prototypical edgy, angsty teenager but there is also an undeniable vulnerability and genuine caring quality there that steeps her in unknown depth. That top layer is nothing new but that latter aspect is a testament to Mills’ characters.

Meanwhile, Gerwig provides her exorbitant supply of charismatic energy and panache that allows her to hold some of the most memorable scenes in the film in comedic terms and yet she also proves that there still is a certain tenderness in the red-haired, photography-loving, punk listening, new age modern woman, Abbie.

At the behest of Dorthea she tries to invest some of her artistic spirit into Jamie’s life, showing off the punk scene, introducing him to seminal feminist texts, and helping him to be comfortable around women but, of course, he’s more comfortable than most which is a sign of a certain amount of maturity. In fact, he impacts these women as much as they speak to him and that’s a testament to everyone involved, all flaws aside.

Even if Jamie is, in truth, our main character, perhaps a stand- in for Mills or for us, this film succeeds in crafting stalwart female characters with actual contours that are worth dissecting and with inherent worth denoted by their actions and what they care about.

I don’t know a great deal about Mike Mills but watching a film like 20th Century Women I feel like I know him better–not all of him certainly–but there are pieces here that are no doubt personal and give us a slight view into his experiences.

It’s intimate and there’s an unquestionable amount of vulnerability in his story that must be admired for its sheer honesty. It comes off as purely genuine and real. Because the bottom line is the fact that it never runs on agenda. It never tries to overtly get us to think something or feel something else. If it comes to any overarching conclusions at all it’s that life can be hard and confusing and the same goes for people.

Each one of us can come off as a complex enigma. Even the ones we know and love. It’s possible that we will never know and love them as much as we wish we could. It’s possible we cannot help them or guide them as much as we would like. Still, that’s okay.

For some, this will be a maddening, rudderless picture but to each his own. However, if I may be so bold, 20th Century Women is the kind of film I would want to make–a film wrapped up in its cultural moment in a way that feels so authentic–where the events playing out even if they’ve been made cinematic have real resonance for me as a human being.

Yes, it’s the kind of effort that won’t be received by everyone but a film so very personal rarely is. A film like this you don’t necessarily make for other people anyway. You make it for yourself and the ones you love and leave it at that. This is a love letter.

3.5/5 Stars

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances_Ha_poster“You look older but a lot less grown up…” 

People as diverse as Buddy the Elf, Holly Golightly, and Annie Hall call New York their stomping ground and along with these iconic figures comes Frances Halladay. Her bubble does extend to France and California, but New York is really her home base. In Noah Baumbach’s film, we follow this enigma as her address constantly changes, and she strives to follow her dream of becoming a professional dancer. We are allowed time to examine and analyze her in all sorts of situations because plot usually gives way to various asides showcasing the free spirit who is Frances.

She worries about money, can’t pay rent, wants to play fight with her best friend, and is a self-proclaimed “undateable.” She acts like a five-year-old one moment and yet has an almost unknowing beauty about her.  In other words, she’s a real winner. We cannot help but fall in love with her since she wins us over with all her oddities from beginning to end. Her friend Sophie cannot stay mad at her forever either. It’s just not possible. They have to make up.

Frances settles down one final time, after trying her hand rather successfully at choreography and moving back to Washington Heights. There we get one last little nugget. We finally can chuckle knowingly about the title of this film. It’s so Frances and it’s the perfect cherry on top of the sundae.

In the tradition of New York films, Baumbach’s effort has a visual style that was meant to hearken back to the austere black & white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). In some sense, it acts as another character altogether. Whether he is pandering to us or not, there is no doubt that I am a sucker for the cinematography and it made things just a little bit more magical.

Thankfully Greta Gerwig helped craft this script and in her character, she found the perfect paradox. An individual so extremely quirky, but still somehow believable in the same instance. Her foibles and pratfalls only help to solidify her character in our mind. The fact is that each of us probably knows some variation of Frances. Those individuals who dance to a different drum and give every single day that they live on this earth a certain degree of pizzazz. I speak for all the cautious, rationally minded human beings out there. We need the Frances Has to make us laugh and to shake up our normality at least a little bit.

4/5 Stars