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

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn_FilmPosterWe are definitely in the age of the well-wrought period piece and Brooklyn has all the trappings you could want. Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel the film showcases a pure, noble heroine in Eillis Lacy who like many others makes the journey from her homeland of Ireland to the golden-paved streets of New York.

It’s important to note that the year is 1952 and so being an immigrant is not quite the same as it used to be. Eillis certainly must get used to a foreign land, but it’s more civilized and manageable than years gone by. An Irish father named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), already living in America, became her savior because her sister Rose had asked him to help her little sister. In a new land, she must get accustomed to the boarding house lifestyle and work at a high-end department store. It’s difficult. She’s homesick. There’s so much to adapt to. But the bottom line is that Eillis succeeds because she is a pleasant, hardworking girl of great individual intelligence.

She gels with her landlady and fellow residents enough to gain their respect. And Her life continues as follows: lively gossip at the dinner table, dance halls become the local watering holes, and the daily revolving door of the department store greets her every day. Meanwhile, while helping the Father, he gets her access to night classes so she can take up bookkeeping. She is making something of herself, but greatest of all, she finds a man!

He’s an Italian plumber with an extensive family, but most importantly he’s conscientious and kind. Young love buds and begins to blossom between Tony (Emory Cohen) and Eillis. They go to the pictures to Singin’ in the Rain and Tony acknowledges his deep appreciation for the Brooklyn Dodgers. More than that he confesses his love for Eillis and she returns his feelings.  They could not be happier and they certainly deserve to be happy together. However, as often happens in life, our pleasant times are often rained on by tragedy. Eillis receives news that her dear sister Rose has died, leaving their mother alone. Eillis must make the journey back home, leaving Tony, but not before making a major vow to him.

Back home Eillis sees old friends, takes up her sister’s old job as a favor to the company, and finds herself getting set up with a gentlemanly local boy named Jim Farell (Domnhall Gleeson). It’s a little slice of paradise that quietly calls to Eillis. Coaxing her to stay in the land of her kith and kin. It’s a tantalizing offer, but the inviting lights of Brooklyn still wait for her.

While Brooklyn lacks the rough-hewn edge of many other narratives that spring to mind, it’s a wonderfully emotive film that becomes a hauntingly beautiful portrait of immigrant life. It’s a story where oceans separate people like solitary beacons standing on the shoreline. Eillis has a fissure cutting through her existence with the two sides slowly drifting apart. She must make a choice. The key to the film’s dramatic tension is that all roads feel inherently good, all the main players seem agreeable. With all that to mull over, what is the right choice? It becomes a task of parsing through her own identity, what it means to be Irish, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a person of two lands.

That rich, mellifluous Irish brogue of Saoirse Ronan is a beautiful melody that brings a wide-eyed sincerity to Brooklyn’s leading role. But just as importantly both Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson carry their own degrees of charm that nevertheless set them apart from each other. Although Brooklyn does have it’s dramatic moments, it has enough grace for lightness and laughs and it really profits from that. These characters are generally good, as often funny as they are serious. They feel natural.

Brooklyn has the technicolor tones that have come in fashion for denoting a bygone era, and that era is worth at least acknowledging. It’s an age with Ebbetts Field and The Quiet Man. The deep, forgotten depths of handwritten letters and more richly religious overtones. It also reflected different gender expectations and expectations of class and race. But this love story grabs hold of all that is upright and pure about young love and waves it like a banner. It’s about the little things. Learning how to eat spaghetti to impress the parents. Sharing your feelings in the tunnel of love, meet-cutes in dance halls, and reunions on lonely street corners. It’s beautiful and stirringly romantic — even unabashedly so — and in this day and age, that’s not something to take lightly.

4.5/5 Stars

“I see now that giddiness is the eighth deadly sin” ~ Landlady

 

Atonement (2007)

atone2Without any prior knowledge and given what we know to begin with, it looks like Atonement will be a love story revolving around the characters of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. They are, after all, the big stars in this WWII era romance based on the Ian McEwan novel. We expect to become enraptured in their passionate love affair that is to be indubitably broken up by war. However, it becomes evident very quickly that this is really a tale about a young girl  and budding author, played through the years in succession by  Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. It is her point of view and her part in this narrative that becomes most important, although we do not have any indication as to why to begin with.

So in front of the peering eyes of Briony Tallis, her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and the son of the family housekeeper Robbie Turner (McAvoy) start something which Briony cannot fully comprehend and understand. What is it that is really going on around her? An intricate manipulation of time and place begins, relating the story from a number of perspectives, but always returning to Briony. How does Cecilia really feel towards Robbie, who is in a sense below her, but still proud? Briony knows she has feelings for the housekeeper’s son, but how is she to react when she finds her sister and Robbie crammed up against the bookcases together. Then, when a pair of pesky twins goes missing a search party begins. Again Briony sees something that she cannot fully understand, and yet she makes a judgment that will unwittingly tear apart two lives. There is constantly an inquisitiveness, a confusion in her expressions that is absolutely spot on.  And in these moments the score is suffocating with its pounding, clanging, and banging.

atone3Robbie gets sent away, torn from his love Cecilia, and Britain is on the brink of war. When the two lovers finally get a chance to see each other, he has joined the army in order to be released from prison, and she is working as a nurse.  But it’s a heartbreaking separation because although the passage of time is condensed for us, we can easily see the reserved, hesitant quality in both of them. How are they supposed to react? It’s difficult to hold onto the same feelings, maintain the same type of passion when you’re separated by the years. Cee reaches out to touch his hand, and he avoids her slightly. You cannot exactly blame him, but there is a tinge of sympathy for her.

But their romance is quickly renewed and heightened once more in a matter of days, only to have the war this time pull them apart. And it’s something that’s very hard to rebound from. Robbie ends up in the middle of France and when he finally discovers the coast with a couple of comrades they come across all the forces at Dunkirk getting ready to retreat. For those engaged with WWII history, Dunkirk was in one sense a wounding blow to the English ego, but also a testament to their resilience. The men are beaten and battered, but escape the Nazi onslaught to fight another day. And yet we don’t see the fighting. With a wonderfully dynamic tracking shot director Joe Wright gives us an eye into the tired and wounded masses. And it’s somber, chilling, melancholy, and still strikingly beautiful in the same instance.

atone5Back home, Briony is now working in a hospital almost as penitence for wrongs and soon the hospital is inundated with wounded from the retreat. She is quickly thrown into action comforting a dying French soldier with a penchant for the soft refrains of Debussy. Then, comes the pivotal confrontation where Briony, now older, faces her sister who has refused to talk with her. And Robbie is there too. Together they painfully and angrily point out what the young girl had done to both of them. It’s heart-wrenching to the nth degree and yet the final revelation makes it all the more painful.

Now many years down the line, Briony, who is now much older (Redgrave) and an author of 21 books, is interviewed about her final novel Atonement. It lays out the events of the whole film, and she explains her reason for writing such a story. She wrote it to be read by the public certainly, but most importantly she wrote it for Robbie and Cee. To give them closure and the dignity that they deserved.

So you see, it’s the book within the book really or more correctly Ian McEwan writing a novel called Atonement featuring a fictitious version of the same work. In a sense, I do feel manipulated by this film, but do I mind? Not really. I don’t hold it against the film because it tells its story with so much beauty and grace.

4/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The farthest Eastern boundary of the European continent makes the perfect landscape for a new addition to the quirky Wes Anderson canon. But more on that later. First our story.

It gains inspiration from the writings of forgotten Viennese author of the 30s and 40s Stefan Zweig. In fact, the author’s own plot device is used in this story of friendship, love, and murder. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) from the 1960s becomes intrigued by the aging proprietor of the Grand Budapest Hotel Zero Moustaffa (F. Murray Abraham).

The rather mysterious figure is glad to tell his story and how he came to acquire the iconic hotel. And that’s where our real story begins, back in 1932, with concierge and small time celebrity M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He is a dying breed of a man, full of culture, a bit effeminate, and known to wine and dine older patrons. He also has an immense affinity for poetry.

It was under his leadership that the young, stoic bellboy Zero got his start. What an exciting beginning it was.  One of Gustave’s most faithful patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple.

The family of the deceased is in an uproar led by belligerent son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Soon Gustave has become the strangest of fugitives as he is wanted for the murder of the old lady.

During that time, young love springs up and Zero meets the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Roman), a spunky baker who returns his affection.

Now the imprisoned Gustave takes part in an escape attempt a la Le Trou except this rendition is successful to a degree. Faithful Zero meets up with his mentor, and Gustave turns to the only ones he can. The concierges from all the surrounding area. They oblige, getting the two fugitives away, but soon Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is on their tails at a local monastery.

War is imminent and back at the Grand Budapest things do not look promising.  The ever fearless Agatha agrees to go fetch Boy with Apple, but she is soon spotted and pursued by the ever brutish Dmitri who tries to use his gun. That’s not a smart thing when all the rooms are full of quartered soldiers and a chaotic gunfight ensues.

In the aftermath, a second will is uncovered that makes M. Gustave the sole owner of the Grand Budapest and many other possessions that Madame D owned. In a Deja Vu moment, Gustave and Zero ride the train once again before getting boarded and questioned. Always the gentlemen, Gustave defends Zero who is targeted for his immigration status. It was in that way the story ends and returns to the young author and elderly Zero Moustaffa.

He never could bear to give up the Grand Budapest despite the toll of Communism. It’s not because of Gustave, but his dear Agatha who died only two years after. It’s his only link to the happiest times of his life.

What The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being is an odd mix of black comedy and romantic sentiment all wrapped up in an Anderson world.

His shots are often framed symmetrically and muted pastels abound as well as scaled miniatures, creating his always distinctive mise-en-scene. He is also a fan of a smooth moving camera often involving zooms.

Anderson is obviously a student of cinema and his film at times are reminiscent to 30s fair such as Grand Hotel and The Rules of the Game. He also channels another famed Viennese Ernst Lubitsch who was a master of highbrow romantic comedies.

Hotel also boast a superb cast comprising most of Anderson’s stock company. If there’s anyone who has been in more than one of his movies, they are probably in this one, even for just an instant.

So given the normal Wes Anderson flair or eccentricities, this film is visually pleasing and quite entertaining. It is a worthy follow up to Moonrise Kingdom, darling.

4/5 stars