Film Review: LADY BIRD (USA 2017) ****

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Lady Bird Poster
Trailer

In the early 2000s, an artistically-inclined seventeen year-old comes of age in Sacramento, California.

Director:

Greta Gerwig

Writer:

Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig does an impressive job for LADY BIRD – her first solo directorial debut. Gerwig choses the coming-of-age story of an 18-year old senior student called Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) as the subject.  Lady Bird (her real name is Christine McPherson) is as annoying, spirited and independent as any teenager would be.  But Greewig’s script and Ronan’s portrayal allows the audience not to dislike her.

Lady Bird attends a catholic high school in Sacramento.  She lives with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), father (Tracy Letts) and step-brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez).  She has a stormy relationship with her mother, things getting worse when she gets suspended telling off a teacher.  Her mother works extra shifts to support her, claiming that no amount of money can repay this debt.  Lady Bird has a failed relationship with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who ends up coming out gay.  She then loses her virginity to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) who turns out to have been sleeping around.  But the key issue is that she wants to study in New York but her mother refuses as the family cannot afford it.  When her mother finds out she had applied in secret, she becomes really upset.

The film covers thoroughly a lot of the female teen issues quite well.  Lady Bird undergoes the learning process and develops her character for the better.  But it is a rough road.  She ditches her best friend, Jenny (Beanie Feldstein) and has major fights with her mother.  She makes up with Jenny going to the prom with her after ditching her prom date, Kyle.  The film’s climax has her in New York after her mother drives her to the airport, still visibly upset.

Gerwig stages well constructed and written confrontational scenes. Two of these involve  Lady Bird and her mother.  One has her asking for a number, what her mother has spent supporting her. When her mother replies no number can be put down for what she has done, Lady Bird storms out of the room.  The other has her begging her mother for forgiveness while her mother is doing the dishes, giving her the silent treatment.   Greta could have made the film funnier, but she restrains, keeping her story focuses and serious.  Gerwig shows both sides of the picture, the mother’s and the daughter’s.  They have their points of view and are strong women.

The script however, noticeably does not contain strong male characters. Kyle is an idiot, Danny is weak willed unable to accept his homosexuality.  The father suffers from depression and Miguel is not that strong a person either.

Metcalf delivers a terrific performance as the mother.  She manages to win the audience to her side and makes her point without having to resort to cheap theatrics like screaming or crying.  Ronan is equally good while Letts does well in his little written role.

Gerwig draws her audience effectively into Lady Bird’s world, opening out an exciting adventure of a family, not dysfunctional, but one that still have problems to solve.

LADY BIRD succeeds.  One would now hope to see a film made but with the male and female roles reversed – with a story of a n angry male teen learning his lessons in life.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNi_HC839Wo

 

 

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Film Review: 20th CENTURY WOMEN (USA 2016)

20th_century_women_poster.jpgDirector: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig

Review by Gilbert Seah

Mike Mills hit it big with his coming out movie BEGINNERS based on his father who came out of the closet at the age of 75. Mills continues his personal films with 20th CENTURY WOMEN based on his upbringing by both his mother and her sister. The film has clout since, it is based on his life. This is a heartfelt feature.

The story is set in 1979, Santa Barbara, California. Single mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning) seeks the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Abbie and Julie rent the rooms upstairs of Dorothea’s house.

Despite the film title, 20the CENTURY WOMEN is not solely about women. It is also about a boy being brought up by three women, only because the mother deems she needs help in his upbringing. So, the film should cater to a male audience though the ads and trailer do not make this point known. It is quite clear where the film is leading. Not only is the boy learning from the women, but the women are slowly influenced by the boy – by the boy’s reactions and deeds.

Mills demonstrates that minimal dialogue can also be used to highlight the drama in a confrontation scene. This is evident in the one where the boys argues with his mother after she chastises him on the ‘choking stinge’. The boy just walks away. The tactic of not using lengthy flowery arguments or screaming matches heighten the credibility of the story.
Mill’s film emphasizes details the characters indulge in that help the audience understand them. Dorothea smokes like a chimney – because it is stylish. But she smokes Salem menthols believing the harm is reduced. Julie sleeps with Jamie, sneaking into this room each night, but there do not indulge in sex.

A lot of effort seems to be put into the hairdo of the characters. Jamie and his mother have very curly hair while Abbie and daughter Julie noticeably straight hair. Abbie’s red hair symbolizes her desire to be different as she is.

The film is put into perspective by titles as well as Jamie’s voiceover. Still, one wonders where the film is leading to, and whether there is some hidden message.

Annette Bening shines in her role as the unsure mother. I am not really a Bening fan as she usually undertakes roles of unlikeable women like in AMERICAN BEAUTY and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS. But this sympathetic role suits her. Elle Fanning has been taking roles of and doing well with weird characters lately (LIVE BY NIGHT and THE NEON DEMON) and her role in this film will add to the list.

It would be interesting to see what kind of film Mills will be involved with next – after he has used up all the stories in his family and personal life.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JnFaltqnAY

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Film Review: JACKIE (USA/Chile/France 2016)

jackie_movie_posterDirector: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig

Review by Gilbert Seah

Chilean director Pablo Larrain has made a name for himself with critical hit films like NO and TONY MANERO. But he is an odd choice for the English speaking film biography of the true American icon JACKIE, based on the life of Jackie Kennedy just after her husband, John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

The story follows the events immediately following the assassination. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is being interviewed by a reporter, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life Magazine. The film plunges the audience into the devastation using a series of finely crafted flashbacks that cover the fateful day in Dallas, Jackie’s return to the White House, arrangements for the President’s funeral, and her time spent accompanying her husband’s coffin to Arlington Cemetery.

The film is a slow count of what happens. It is the coping of a violent death of a loved one. The film is very American despite being directed by a non-American. The sequences complete a moving portrait of a grieving woman — a widow and mother struggling with overwhelming tragedy and attention. Yet the core of the film is formed by quiet, profoundly intimate moments: Jackie’s conversations with her children, her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, also at the Festival in The Magnificent Seven), one of her aides (Greta Gerwig), journalist White (Billy Crudup), and a Catholic priest (John Hurt). Larrain loves the close-ups of Jackie. The scenes between Jackie and the priest are done in a flashback within a flashback.

Portman does a fine job as Jackie Kennedy. She often looks aloof though she says that she is not and concerned about the children and the funeral procession. I don’t recall how the real Jackie spoke, but Portman always speaks with her mouth wide open, which I gather is the way the real Kennedy spoke.

For a non-American, the tasks offered to the former First Lady of restoring the artefacts of the White House may seem trivial. Jackie often moves around the different rooms drowning vodka or popping one of her colourful pills, always with a cigarette in one hand. She might not seem convincing when she says she cares so much for the children, but that is the way she was in real life during those times. Non-Americans might either find everything totally boring for incidents portrayed that do not concern them or be totally in awe of anyone being so involved in Americana.

One of the tasks Jackie was in charge of was looking after the White House. In the film’s best segment, an inspired one no doubt, Jackie is seen moving about the house, cigarette in one hand, popping pols, pouring drinks or arranging letters to the tune and lyrics of the song CAMELOT. Camelot, the perfect place to be is Jackie’s White House.

JACKIE emerges as a rare film about America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. It is a queer piece which alternates between looking really artificial and surreal, but that might be Larrain’s intention.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZTXv5NpgaI

 

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