Archive for January 2018

Lady Bird

January 28, 2018

lady-bird-nytGreta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It doesn’t seem to fit the description — it’s wee, technically modest, undemonstrative to the point of obliqueness — and I don’t know that I’d put money on it myself, but the more time I have away from it, the more warmth I feel for it. It’s cozy; it’s fine. Its brushstrokes are light, and it never overextends — or extends, really. Its energies are almost wholly inward-directed. We ride along with the sorrows and temporary joys of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird. Why? The movie doesn’t tell us. Nor does there seem to be a compelling reason to set the story in 2002 and 2003. A lot of Lady Bird — its emotional meanings, specific references — seems locked away from the viewer, known and felt only by Gerwig.

It probably won’t do to speak of male or female styles of movie directing, especially in an art form that has given us Bigelow, Wertmüller, Lexi Alexander. But a movie like, say, Wonder Woman feels different from a male-directed superhero film in a million distinct, at times large and overarching, or sometimes almost imperceptible ways. They are elements that add up and assure you that you are getting a woman’s vision, which is all the more to be valued in an industry where the default — the experience that’s shared on film, and the audience with whom the experience is shared — is (white hetero) male. Lady Bird is unmistakably and unapologetically (white hetero) female. It’s a gentle thing, but far less fragile than it looks; there’s a hidden sadness in it, and strength from the sadness.

Lady Bird is a teenage student at a Sacramento Catholic school. She dabbles in this and that (running for school office, acting in plays), trying to find a self. In that way she’s a bit like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, though she has her own quirks. She’s dying to get out of Sacramento, to go to college in New York. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, wants Lady Bird to be realistic about what school she can get into — and can afford. She has a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, then pairs off with a pompous ass in a band. She ices her best friend for a while in favor of a popular kid, then thinks better of it. Her entire life seems to be a repeating pattern of moving in one direction, backtracking, moving another direction, and so forth. The filmmaking, honoring this, feels diffuse, indecisive.

Actually, it’s right on target, a rare American inner-consciousness portrait that somehow doesn’t feel hermetic. The narrative may not literally reflect Gerwig’s life, but it has her warm and sympathetic touch; her personality can be felt. Lady Bird is far from perfect and often makes bad decisions, but they are her decisions. We never doubt that. In a repressive environment, she does what she can to carve her own space, to meet her own needs (a virgin, she swaps masturbation techniques with her bestie). She isn’t especially looking for a boy until she finds one — in both cases fixating on them while they’re singing (falling in love with their voices, I guess an inverse of The Little Mermaid).

We understand why she feels and acts as she does, and yet our empathy extends to people she has conflict with, such as her mother. Gerwig loves actors and small, telling moments, and actively avoids melodramatic plot turns you might expect. She bears down into mundane scenes and somehow makes them feel fresh by the sensibility that animates them. Gerwig’s obvious fondness for her characters (nobody in the film is all bad — or all good) is contagious. She loves and respects her creations enough not to put them in stupid, well-worn situations; she respects us enough not to foist such tired drama on us. We don’t see so much of that sort of consideration at the movies that we can afford to dismiss it.

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Braven

January 21, 2018

Braven-1
Filmed in snowy Newfoundland, the trim siege thriller Braven opens with some tasty widescreen views of the landscape. Tasty, but forbidding: You wouldn’t want to live out here, much less die out here. “If I’m gonna get shot I’d rather it’s hot than cold,” said a minor character in Unforgiven. “It hurts more when it’s cold. You know how if you hit your thumb when it’s cold” — and then someone tells him to shut up. But yes. We know. Thrillers or noirs set in the deep freeze have a physical heaviness and more intense painfulness than similar films set in San Diego. So in Braven, when men are stabbed and slashed and bashed and bled, our involuntary sympathetic wincing may feel sharper.

Physical solidity is about all Braven has going for it, but for a low-fat, no-frills sprinter like this, that might be enough, if only it weren’t so stoically laughable. Jason Momoa stars as Joe Braven, who lives up to his name, because you kind of have to. Joe’s pops (Stephen Lang), though neurologically disabled from a brain injury, is also Braven, as are Joe’s wife (Jill Wagner) and young daughter (Sasha Rossof). If the family name were, say, Wimpen, the movie would be even shorter and more anticlimactic. But here, Joe Braven isn’t only a loving husband, affectionate dad, and bringer of pain to lowlifes — he’s also a lumberjack. The sheer number of macho-noble signifiers built into this role Momoa produced for himself is breathtaking and more than a little funny, though the movie seems serenely unaware of the joke.

Joe finishes a hard, robust day of lumberjacking, and his co-worker slinks off to deliver some heroin; when the guy’s lumber truck flips, he finds Joe’s cabin and stashes the drugs there. This would be a better idea if Joe weren’t arriving shortly at the cabin with his addled dad and, unbeknownst to him, little daughter hiding in the back of the truck. Soon enough, bad men led by Garret Dillahunt converge on the cabin looking for the stash. And it’s then that the movie gets weird, because every single good guy in it seems to have secret lives where they had years of top-quality paramilitary training. Joe and his wife both know how to use a bow and arrow, and do so to damaging effect. Joe’s father, in his moments of lucidity, out of nowhere reveals sniper skills that would shame Charles Whitman. Too bad the kid mostly just runs and hides, because otherwise this is a whole hilarious family of expertly skilled killers.

Is Braven a stealth comedy? I mean, Jason Momoa seems to have some sense of humor, and the joshing here could be incredibly deadpan … or it could be presented in utmost monkish seriousness, which of course only makes it all the funnier. The climax involves a bear trap and a cliff, and plays like an unused alternate ending for The Revenant. At one point you’ve got Jason Momoa hanging painfully upside down, blood dripping up his nose, and that would be the ideal time to have him say something like “Man, I really didn’t think this through.” Dwayne Johnson would have. Dwayne Johnson is also maybe the biggest movie star in the world right now, and he headlines nine-figure blockbusters while Momoa gets a Canadian thriller so tightly budgeted it offers a truly cheapjack approximation of a truck crash. Go and do likewise, Jason.

I may have made Braven in its po-faced sincerity and obliviousness to its own goofiness sound more entertaining than it is. In the midst of the somber clownishness Stephen Lang brings vivid fear and pathos to his scenes as the disoriented Grandpa Braven. Joe, grappling with the certainty that his father will need to be “put in a home,” seems like a realistically troubled fellow. “I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk,” Joe tells his dad, not long before he stops talking and starts fighting. I’m not sure why all this painful background is included, except that ultimately Joe’s decision is taken out of his hands, and his responsibility, too. The movie ends up saying that there’s nothing like a good bloodletting to bring a family closer together while resolving the issue of inconveniently disabled elders. On second thought, this movie had better be joking.

Signature Move

January 15, 2018

signature-move-2017-001-wrestler-masksIf you feel like registering a gentle complaint about the current leadership, you could do worse than Signature Move, a lesbian dramedy about the maybe-sort-of-something between a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer and a Mexican-American bookstore clerk. Zaynab (co-writer/co-producer Fawzia Mirza) meets Alma (Sari Sanchez) at a friendly bar; they drink, dance, and fall into bed. The proudly out Alma would like the fling to become something more. Zaynab, fairly tightly closeted, isn’t sure; she keeps her sexuality from her recently widowed mother (Shabana Azmi), who spends her days sitting in Zaynab’s apartment, watching Pakistani soap operas and spying on passersby with her binoculars.

The script, by Mirza and Lisa Donato, is neatly assembled. The soap operas (Alma speaks in praise of telenovelas too) as well as a seemingly discordant note — female lucha libre wrestling — form part of the movie’s theme about acting, pretending, lying. It’s maybe a little too much of a coincidence that Zaynab takes wrestling lessons from a client (as payment for Zaynab’s legal services) and then meets and beds the daughter of a once-famed, now-retired luchadora. But I didn’t mind, because metaphorically it’s sound — the universe is conspiring to show Zaynab in ways painfully emotional and physical that she has to stop acting.

Director Jennifer Reeder, an indie-film veteran, keeps Signature Move bubbling atop a low flame, occasionally turning up the heat when the lovers enjoy each other (always clothed — save for a couple of words, this could be a PG film). It’s assured work from a filmmaker who values human-scaled awkward comedy over grand passion; the movie itself could have been handled as a soap opera, but Reeder disdains cheese (this is most welcome during the climax, at a lucha libre event). The women are agreeably paired: the warm and fleshy Sanchez matches up amusingly with the angular, neurotic Mirza, whose short swept-up hair and stoic default expression give her a resemblance to the young, imperious Camille Paglia.

One odd motif is the concept of a human being “coming out of” another human, the unlikely link mothers and daughters have despite deceiving looks. It also neatly sums up the dichotomous feeling many modern LGBT folks have when trying to reconcile their heritage with their sexuality. Sooner or later Zaynab has to move on past her mother, and so on. Signature Move packs a lot under a relatively small hood; the film weighs in at a slender hour and fifteen minutes, and sometimes feels like an extended pilot for a Pakistani-American lesbian New Girl. Join Zaynab, her girlfriend Alma, and their zany friends and family every week on NBC! Certainly there are worse things to say of a film than that we’d gladly spend more hours with its characters.

That’s probably more a result of the charm of the actors (I especially liked Audrey Francis as Zaynab’s wrestling coach, sort of an Illeana Douglas with biceps) than a reflection of the filmmakers’ goals here. Signature Move is short, but sticks around exactly as long as it needs to in order to make its point about the courage of declaring oneself (or one’s self). The abbreviated length also means we don’t have to wallow in the lovers’ temporary misery for very long. The movie is a perfectly pleasant bonbon for its target audience and its allies, and likely poison to those who don’t care for Pakistanis, Mexicans, gays, or women.

The Year in Review

January 7, 2018

mother2Well, 2017 certainly was a year. It more or less began with craziness and pretty much stayed that crazy — though near the end, say in the autumn, we started seeing some pushback in the form of #MeToo. In fraught political times, every work of art seems to comment on those times, even when the commentary is unintentional.

My picks for the top two films of last year seemed to stand cheek by jowl in their efforts to explain the world in which we find ourselves, even though they were conceived and written long before January 20. Jordan Peele’s electrifying Get Out ran a paranoid premise through the filter of a lone African-American’s terror at the hands of outwardly benevolent white liberals. With its airtight structure and attention to detail and theme, it’s built for repeat viewings and long conversations. Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, hotly polarizing among critics as well as audiences, recast a biblical fable as an environmental cautionary tale — much like Aronofsky’s previous Noah. It was, in my view, the film of the year, a daft and impassioned folly that proves stubborn art is still possible on the major-studio level.

I loved Peele’s and Aronofsky’s efforts and look forward to more from them. I also celebrated the return of Patty Jenkins, who directed her long-overdue sophomore film Wonder Woman and made it into a fine refutation of nihilistic male domination in favor of female perseverance (the No Man’s Land sequence was instantly iconic). It became the official “Nevertheless, she persisted” movie, and seemed to set the stage for a period in which male sexual predators were called onto the carpet. One of them, Louis C.K., made a film that didn’t get released (but was shown at film festivals and sent out on screener discs to critics for awards consideration before its maker was disgraced) yet seemed to have the current moment on its mind.

The excellent series capper War for the Planet of the Apes was another accidental commentary on this xenophobic “build the wall” era. So was Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, which boasted, for me, the year’s great female performance (Salma Hayek) and found it within itself to allow some wit and dignity to a snide billionaire antagonist (helped by John Lithgow’s compassionate work). Colossal maintained that women can be monstrous too, though not as monstrous as a resentful, friend-zoned man. The tepid Wilson practically gave up on its eponymous anti-hero (Woody Harrelson) and let Laura Dern, as his long-estranged ex, take over the movie. Dern also shines, I hear, in the latest Star Wars episode, which I have not yet seen.

Star Wars, too, has become about how disaffected young white men can re-animate a bad old ideology (the First Order = white supremacy) while disillusioned old white men leave the battle for good to young women and people of color. (Eventually, the self-exiled, gray-bearded Luke Skywalker pulls himself together.) Blade Runner 2049, bloated as it was, spoke compellingly about the role of humanity in a cold tech future. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 was a terrific old-fangled yarn with old-school prosthetic gore as well as a 1970s respect for quiet human moments; it seems to cloak within it a sad critique of white-knightism and toxic masculinity, as did Zahler’s previous Bone Tomahawk. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to have confidence in the potential for redemption, even for violent racists. Two middling efforts, The Shape of Water and I, Tonya, still put complicated, suffering femalehood at their centers in all its passion and rage.

In and out of the movie theater, 2017 was a year for struggling with the national identity. Are we to be compassionate or indifferent to injustice and inequality? How shall we define ourselves as a country — what world do we want to make for ourselves and our neighbors? The movies continued to tell us it’s important to stand against oppression in all its forms, even while some of those involved in making those movies were outed as hypocritical victimizers or enablers. (Kevin Spacey found himself un-personed out of the year-end Oscar bait All the Money in the World, replaced by Christopher Plummer.) Will we take up our swords and fight for the good we can be, or will we sink into self-abnegating despair like Luke Skywalker or Wilson or Rick Deckard? Increasingly, we are seeing women and non-whites stepping in. “We got this,” they seem to say; “be our allies or get out of our way.” The quality of our 2018 depends largely on the lessons we learn from 2017 — and its art.