Lady Bird (2017)

There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Lady Bird–Greta Gerwig’s first film as a writer/director–where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, still one of the best young actresses around) is having a conversation with one of the nuns at the Catholic high school from which she will soon graduate. Told that her writing reflects a deep love of Sacramento, the town she has spent her entire life in and which she longs to escape, she brushes the compliment off by saying she just pays attention; she is answered “aren’t they the same thing, love and attention?” The moment stands out in a film made up of shrewdly observed moments because it so clearly articulates the movie’s beating heart, and that of many a bildungsroman (bildungsfilm?) like it: to what do we choose to devote our energy and attention and how do we deal with the attention focused on us?

At the center of this film that question relates to the often difficult relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Played by Laurie Metcalf in an Oscar-worthy performance, Marion is a forceful personality–“scary and warm at the same time,” as Danny (Lucas Hedges), one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends, puts it. Their relationship turns on a dime from shared jokes to a barrage of criticisms and explosions that leave quiet and good-natured husband/father Larry (Tracy Letts) holding the bag between them. But it’s also about other kinds of love and attention. We also watch Lady Bird process two very different romances with the doting theater-geek Danny and the aloof boy-in-the-band Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). We watch her shifting relationship her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, all heart and someone to watch in the future). Most importantly we watch her learn to pay more attention to herself: her needs, her participation with those around her, her own transitioning identity.

The movie is, in this regard, certainly nothing novel. Different versions of this story are as old as stories themselves; they’ve been told many times in many mediums. What makes or breaks them is the feeling they’re able to generate, the love and attention they have for their characters and the place, moment, and culture that surrounds them. In case it wasn’t clear by this point, this film succeeds admirably in that regard. Even its less central characters, like popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) or Lady Bird’s apparently adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) avoid falling into caricature. The dialog is intelligent and clever without crossing the line into artificiality. The details of the design–the posters on Lady Bird’s wall (Sleater-Kinney, etc) or the pattern on the McPherson’s living room couch–quietly add to our understanding of this milieu, its contours, assumptions, and rules. There are moments that slightly break from total realism, of course. A football coach teaching a drama class is played for straight laughs; the opening scene is a dramatic punctuation mark that stretches plausibility a little (although it dovetails with the ending so beautifully, I’m a little loathe to call it out). But even these moments are still in the larger spirit of the people and the world to which they belong.

It’s here that I feel, as a reviewer, I have to confess a certain bias: I’m personally about the same age as the main characters here. The film is set roughly over the course of a year, between fall 2002 and 2003, a period during which I also moved across the country, started college, and began to become conscious of things like the economic recession that adds a pressure point to the McPherson family. It would be easy, then, for a movie like this to simply play into a wave of thirty-something nostalgia–something I was watching for going in–but that fortunately isn’t the case. In fact, that it is a period piece is largely irrelevant; Julie and Lady Bird lie in a car singing along to “Crash Into Me,” but the moment is about bonding over a personal tragedy, not the song itself. It could have been anything and would still read.

A more interesting take, then, is that I cannot at the moment think of a film that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship (or really about a teenage girl at all) that is less melodramatic than this one. The kids in this movie smoke pot and play pranks but are not particularly wild or out of control; sex and depression factor in, but nobody has cancer or sleeps around; romance exists but is hardly the central focus; the conflicts have tremendous personal weight for those involved but are at heart banal. Although perhaps not as technically adventurous as Linklater’s recent Boyhood, there is a similar warmth in tone and the change in perspective feels as fresh and interesting as anything in that film. There is a significance in the fact that this is a film by a woman about a young girl–especially such a record-breaking film in an industry currently being shredded for its underrepresentation of women’s voices–but it succeeds because it’s one of the best, most emotionally accurate films about growing up my generation has yet produced.

Suburbicon (2017)

I like George Clooney as an actor, but even more as a director; the previous films of his I’ve seen (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March) have all had a kind of mannered, interesting stye in the same neighborhood as Soderbergh or the Coen brothers. So I was excited at the prospect of him tackling an old script by the latter, written in 1986 between the landmarks Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, curious what kind of spin he might put on their surreal, dark wit. The results are… decidedly mixed. Suburbicon is full of interesting ideas that never quite fully develop or properly gel, engaging in performance and style but ultimately shallower than its obvious ambitions.

The story, set ambiguously in the 1950s, is primarily centered on Nicky (Noah Jupe), preteen resident of the ideal planned community of Suburbicon. Nicky is roused one night by his father, Gardener Lodge (Matt Damon), during a home invasion by two men (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler) that results in the death of the boy’s invalid mother Rose (Julianne Moore). Nicky knows something about that night is a bit hinky, especially after Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) moves in, and he’s not the only one; his uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) also suspect something’s up. Most of the town, however, is distracted by an increasingly violent protest of the Mayers (Leith M Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinoza), neighbors of the Lodge’s and the first black family in the neighborhood.

One gets the sense that this is a move that really wants to say something, but therein lies its primary weakness. It never really makes a concrete connection between the xenophobia and violence the Mayers are experiencing and the more home-grown variety of terror at the Lodges’, which makes the Mayer part of the story feel tacked on and underdeveloped. What’s left is a fairly predictable thriller that kind of feels like a “darkness hiding in perfect suburbia” story, which might have worked in 1986–David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from that year runs with the same idea–but by now has become cliche and insufficient. In short, it’s kind of hard to suss out the point, which makes the film feel hollow.

As an exercise in style it’s pretty fascinating, though. The tone is arch enough that it feels like it should be a comedy, but I’m not convinced it’s actually trying to be. It’s absurd, certainly, in that cartoonish way Coen films often are–Damon frantically pedaling away from a crime scene on an undersized Schwinn, Moore crying as she crushes lethal pills with a rolling pin, the pair of them caught in flagrante with a ping pong paddle–but absurd doesn’t necessarily mean funny. I couldn’t quite decide how to feel about it as I watched it, and honestly that’s what kept my interest as the plot hit all its marks. It’s an interesting use of Matt Damon, essentially a less-nuanced version of William H. Macy’s role in Fargo, but he pulls it off. Moore feels a bit on autopilot but her autopilot suits the film. Isaac’s serpentine investigator is, as usual, a highlight. But everyone seems committed to the stylized nature of the piece with the exception of Jute, Espinoza, Westbrook and, to the extent he can with no dialog that I can recall, Burke. Their performances seemed somehow (not ignorant but) more innocent of the falseness of the rest of it, the kind of touch that makes it hard for me to dismiss the movie completely.

I can see this film being the subject of a revisionist analysis sort of article in a few years (if I’m being honest, I’m already writing it in my head) but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a good movie. Whatever interpretations or insights might be lying underneath the surface, they’re not forefront enough to really matter in the moment of impact. So for those interested in experiencing the work of the talent involved, it ends up a lesser outing that’s rife with potential but doesn’t quite land. For someone just in it for a good flick, go into this one with tempered expectations and there’s a lot to like, but don’t expect anything of real significance even if it feels like it wants you to.

 

 

American Made (2017)

In a way, American Made feels like a Martin Scorsese impression. A number of his films, like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Wolf of Wall Street are based on true-life events that don’t really end well, but are propelled toward tragedy of varying scale by a kind of cavalier, masculine energy and aggressive style–the road to hell is fun and fast paced, with rapid-fire editing, whimsical narrative asides, and a great soundtrack. The filmmakers here are not Scorsese and this movie doesn’t quite stick the thematic landing, but the sweet-and-sour taste it leaves in your mouth is not without its appeal.

In a nutshell, this is the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise at his most shaggy-dog charming, his natural smarm serving the picture rather than working against it), a hotshot TWA pilot who becomes a central player in what would eventually become the Iran-Contra scandal. Recruited by the CIA to run spy missions to South and Central America, Barry catches the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), a partner in Pablo Escobar’s (Mauricio Mejía) drug cartel and soon is moving cocaine one way, guns another, and making more money than he and wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) can find suitcases to bury it in. Bullied into escalating terrible choices by the cartel on one end and the smiling Mr. “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson, predictably the film’s standout performance) on the other, Barry’s life is pulled apart as he allows himself to be exploited by forces of historical and international gravitas.

Whatever the real Barry Seal may have been (and lord knows, based on this), Cruise’s Barry isn’t exactly stupid but he is naive. As he narrates his life into a camcorder, squirreled away in a hotel room, he expresses little regret–“maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions” is as reflective as he gets. He isn’s forced to reflect; his bad behavior has been repeatedly excused because it serves larger agendas about which he doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Even in the face of his own destruction, he regards his despicable-but-significant accomplishments, either unable or unwilling to be cognizant, guilty, or angry about what they represent.

Instead, director Doug Liman (probably best known for his work on the original Bourne trilogy) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli try to pull a reaction to Barry’s circumstance out from the structure of the film itself.  It’s quiet, but rears its head between the jokes about raking money off the lawn and the zero-G sex scenes. Look at the bumper sticker about “pussies” with “cold feet” on the wall of “Schafer’s” cubicle as he repeatedly misreads the situation in Nicaragua, Panama, and Columbia. Look at the ironic use of real footage of Ronald Reagan (who “made his way up from that monkey movie to the White House, so he must know what he’s doin'”). Look at the last, patriotic words Barry speaks into the camera before being cut off by the tape going to sharp static. Reading these as cues that are trying to make a political statement gives direction to the movie’s flash and energy. It elevates what would otherwise be a passable but by now run-of-the-mill crime comedy/drama into a stab at more meaningful satire.

The film’s flaw, then, is that it doesn’t hit these notes quite hard enough, in part because this is not a movie interested in psychological depth. Despite Cruise’s best attempts, Barry comes off as a guy just sort of along for the adventure, without the nuance to be really sympathetic, to feel worth mythologizing. The stylistic excesses of the best films working in this mode feel like natural outgrowths of their larger-than-life characters, so without a better understanding of what makes Barry tick, it’s a little hard to justify the film being as fun as it is.

But it is fun–brightly colored and well paced, full of panache and pithy dialog. If the statement it’s trying to make about… what? American arrogance in foreign policy? Our culture of materialist exploitation? The extent to which macho thrill-seeking behavior informs real-world, large-scale decisions? The inevitability of basic human greed? If that statement gets lost a bit, it’s still has fun to fall back on which goes a long way toward making it watchable. And its a necessary counterbalance to an ending that feels cynical precisely because it registers as a little confused, letting whoever it is that are the real villains here (even if it’s Barry himself) off lighter than they should be allowed.

I left the theater feeling as though I should feel angry, which is why I can’t totally write this film off. There’s something here, some examination of real historical and cultural forces at play, some deeper fascination in this kind of easy, breezy amorality that’s not entirely without wit or direction. With a little bit more meat on its bones, it could’ve been one of the year’s best films. It doesn’t get there, and so doesn’t go anywhere we haven’t seen, but it hangs together enough to be worth watching.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Let’s cut to the chase and tackle the item of most immediate concern: for a 35-years-later sequel to an entrenched classic, Blade Runner 2049 does a remarkable job of not pissing on the legacy of the original. So much so, in fact, that one is willing to overlook the film’s occasional missteps because it so coherently expands on and honors the original work aesthetically and, more significantly, thematically. It’s a little disheartening that that comes as something of a surprise; I want to be optimistic about the current cultural fondness for nostalgia (since I enjoy a lot of the product thereof) but it’s still hard to escape the law of diminishing returns. Like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, this film does–and does so with a greater burden of continuity. So cheers to Denis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher & Michael Green for that.

It helps that the two films are very different, although not at first glance. The Los Angeles of 2049 is still a barren wasteland, no longer belching fire but radiating out from dead-insectile towers like a massive necropolis. The violent overlap of languages and cultures is still there, more intense than ever; the advertisements are no longer confined to animated billboards, becoming hallucinatory holographic giants dancing in the street. But where the first film was hot, sweaty, and claustrophobic, shuttered away in noir shadow from brilliant light just outside, the sequel is cold and expansive, suffused with haze that implies vast, empty spaces between the interlinked cells of civilization.

The story and world similarly opens out, as both films use the premise–manufactured human-like beings called “replicants” exist, but how human are they really?–to comment on the anxiety of their times. The original film was a question mark; it slowly pulled the rug out from under the audience’s basic assumptions until it was unclear whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising the role in this film), a “blade runner” tasked with hunting down rogue replicants, was himself artificial. Or, for that matter, what the implications would be either way for the larger powers that drive the chess game of a plot. But such ideas are passé now. Modern, technologically and socially jaded audiences start from a place of unstable identity and distrust of narrative. So in response, Blade Runner 2049 is an exclamation point. We know our current blade runner, nicknamed K from the first digit of his serial number (and an excellent use of Ryan Gosling’s penchant for looking full of suppressed turmoil; see also: Drive) is a replicant. This plot is less interested in undermining the human (read: normalized) perspective than in following the perspective of the marginalized as they build an identity and a capacity for empathy that resists the exploitation that surrounds them. I want to delve my teeth more into that, to try and unpack some of the film’s images and ideas more thoroughly, but to say more would be doing a disservice to a story that takes its time to unfold. So perhaps the less said the better, for now.

I mentioned missteps and there are some, the time spent unfolding being one. At 163 minutes, it’s nearly an hour longer than the (longest version of the) original film and lacks some of the tightness that is belied by that film’s often deliberate pace (which, in fairness, does vary a bit from cut to cut). Some scenes linger on a little long, there is a hackneyed moment here or there, it’s a little hard to hear Jared Leto talk through the scenery in his mouth, but honestly none of it ends up mattering that much. The experience is immersive and compelling in a way that seems like it mostly respects its audience and the moments that are uncomfortable seem to work toward the greater goal. Throw in some interesting international casting, beautiful camerawork by the always reliable Roger Deakins, and a score from Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch that updates Vangelis’s operatic synths and you have a pretty attractive package.

I’m leery of bestowing classic status on new things. But in even saying so I’ve tipped my hand, haven’t I? In any case, it’s hard to picture this being a film that’s easily forgotten, left in the wake of the disposable-culture machine. Because it’s not a cynical plundering of a beloved memory as much as a contemporary and thoughtful response; that’s what the film is about, narratively and per se. Admittedly, I’m not as rabid a fan of the original as some–Roger Ebert, in reviewing Blade Runner: The Final Cut in 2007, said that he for a long time admired it “at arms length,” which echoes my feelings–but from that vantage, I can’t really imagine a better sequel to it than this one.

 

Wind River (2017)

I chose Wind River for this review on the strength of writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s previous work. Both 2015’s Sicario (written by Sheridan but directed by Denis Villeneuve, himself emerging as one of modern filmmaking’s premiere stylists) and last year’s Hell or High Water (also written by Sheridan but directed by someone else, in this case David Mackenzie, a Scottish director with whom I’m not terribly familiar) both ranked among the strongest Oscar-nominated films of their respective years, contrasting brutal violence with the quiet force of their emotional and psychological intensity. This film works in much the same mode, but feels slighter and less developed by comparison. I don’t consider it a failure, but I do feel a little less certain what to take away from its various elements.

The premise is that of a fairly conventional thriller: on the eponymous native reservation in Wyoming, the body of a young woman is found in the snow by US Fish & Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who is then recruited into helping track down the killer by the only available–and still relatively green–FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). But the film is less concerned with the mystery aspect, instead–much like the films mentioned above–functioning more in the tradition of the western. Like a western–a revisionist western in particular–it sets up a series of familiar oppositions: native and white, male and female, civilization and wilderness, and probes at the power dynamic between them.

The distrust of the native population re: white authority is palpable in ways both big and small. The chief of the tribal police, a resigned and weary Graham Greene, reminds Banner that they cannot expect backup, in no small part because the response of the authorities to their problems is usually less passionate than she, but a more subtle and telling moment comes when a woman lends the unprepared agent some winter gear to go out into the (literal) field. “This isn’t a gift,” she warns firmly, speaking indirectly to a legacy of violence and entitlement that underscores the film.

This dovetails with the violence and entitlement towards women that makes up the mechanical aspect of the film’s murder plot. In an unexpected bit of narrative structure, the film jumps in time in its final act–we watch the inciting incident play out before we witness its climax. The choice is an intelligent one; it throws the audience off balance for a moment, giving up on mystery in favor of a more visceral tension. But more importantly, the sequence distills how a white, masculine dominion over physical space translates to a (perceived) dominion over the people–particularly women–in it.

Even in this final conflict, Lambert is literally a man apart, traveling his own path, his white hunter’s camo melting him into the landscape itself. He is an archetypal western hero–solitary and stoic with a tragic backstory, most at home in the wilderness and not quite able to belong. It’s immediately made clear he is an ally who values the culture of the people around him–in an early moment, teaching his son to ride a horse, the boy asks if his moves are “pretty cowboy,” only to be gently corrected that they’re “pretty Arapahoe.” But he’s also reminded by one of the reservation’s angry young men that he can’t really identify: “the only thing native about you is an ex-wife and daughter you couldn’t protect.”

To his credit as an actor, Renner is more than up to portraying those interior conflicts. His performance is sensitive and rich, even if he is occasionally saddled with dialogue that comes off a little overly self-conscious and a bit like a dour motivational poster. His character is interesting and sympathetic but his complete centricity is also what ultimately feels like blunts the message. Olsen does a solid job with what arc her character has–she becomes visibly more comfortable wielding authority as the story progresses, going from “not that I’m much help or anything,” to being able to diffuse a standoff between several armed men. Likewise Gil Birmingham makes a relatively brief but powerful impact as the dead girl’s father (particularly in the film’s closing moments), hanging on to his identity and choices in the face of them crumbling around him. But even the two of them aren’t given much background or narrative space to breathe and change in a really impactful way. This is ultimately a film about a white man, even as it feels like it’s trying not to be.

Perhaps that’s somewhat the point, I suppose, because it does feel like it’s about the use of power and its corresponding violent capacity. And it is a violent film–one of the first images we see is of a predatory wolf being shot as it stalks a herd of sheep. That violence punctuates the desolation of a beautifully shot landscape, and it is to the credit of the filmmakers–Sheridan, cinematographer Ben Richardson, editor Gary D. Roach, and the cast–that the film is taut with its constant potential. But where Lambert finds a personal redemption in holding that very power against those who wield it irresponsibly, it’s hard to really say what to make of that conclusion when the power itself seems to be the, by implication at least, insurmountable problem.

I’ll repeat that I don’t think this renders the film a failure, but it does make it more difficult and less satisfying than the director’s previous work. It’s worth seeing as part of the continued evolution of a promising filmmaker and for its understated central performance. And it’s engaging throughout–the film is anything but boring, but it comes with a lot of baggage that the final payoff doesn’t quite address to even the morally and intellectually complex degree I’ve been led to expect by this developing auteur.

Mother!

I didn’t really know what to expect going into Mother! I knew it had an interesting cast–Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristin Wiig. I knew I had a generally favorable impression of Darren Aronofsky’s previous work-I liked Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan all in an over-the-top, Grand Guignol kind of way. But what interested me most about the limited information I had was the divisive critical opinion surrounding the film. I try not to read articles about a movie I plan to write about before I’ve seen it, but the general impression seemed to be that the film inspired strong reactions, both negative and positive, with little in the way of a middle ground.

After seeing it, this makes complete sense. On the one hand, it feels like a half-baked, near incoherent mess, chock full of obscure motivations and deranged fantastical elements that cram uncomfortably into a narrative space not big enough for all of them. And yet… that very uncomfortable feeling seems to be crucial to the film on a more guttural level. I left the theater overwhelmed and breathless, having undergone a visceral experience that I did not fully understand but which was all the more nerve-shredding because of it. The reasons it fails on one level are the same reasons it succeeds on another.

It’s clear, at least, that Mother! is an allegory of some sort. It takes place entirely in a single house in an unspecified location. None of the characters have names–the crawl is a list of archetypal designations like Damsel, Philanderer, Fool, Wanderer, etc. There’s copious use of unabashed symbolism–the mysterious crystal in Javier Bardem’s office, the bleeding hole in the floorboards of a side room, Ed Harris’s lighter, et al. But the nature of the allegory, beyond a basic struggle between creation and destruction, is elusive. The artistic process, familial and relationship dynamics, feminism, communism, fascism, religion, environmentalism, existentialism, and on and on, are all thrown into this kitchen sink of possible interpretations that make it hard to pin down the movie as saying anything at all. Images and ideas push against the periphery without context or development, ending up in a space of basic epistemological doubt; when it comes down to it, I’m not really certain what actually happened in this movie.

But boy, did it happen. It’s worth noting the exclamation point in the title because the movie works to earn it from its first moments. It plays out like a home-invasion film; the camera stays uncomfortably close to Jennifer Lawrence’s face throughout in a claustrophobic space that keeps getting penetrated with escalating violence. At first it’s… well, not subtle, but more grounded, letting the audience feel like they know what’s happening before wrong-footing them with a bizarre narrative decision or nightmarish image. A backhandedly aggressive performance from Michelle Pfeiffer in particular sets a tone that begins plausibly but becomes increasingly surreal, ending in a balls-out apocalyptic horror-movie of a third act.

And it’s the complete inexplicability of the unfolding situation that makes it so terrifying. It’s easy to feel for Lawrence’s character, being left out of crucial information and feeling increasingly helpless; the harder she fights to get a hold on what’s happening, the less effect she’s able to have on the cataclysmic events going on in what is supposed to be a safe, personal space. Javier Bardem looms over her as tormentor/protector, but we ultimately know very little about even him and her pleas only seem to make the situation worse. There’s an energy in being pulled into that kind of terror and it’s one Aronofsky and crew exploit with a not insignificant level of thought and craft. I feel like this is a film that will reveal a lot of minute detail on rewatching, but it’s hard to speak to it now because I was so physically caught up in the moment.

So, what then? Is this a good genre movie? A bad art movie? Both? Neither? To what degree does it have to make sense to be successful? What even are the parameters of success here? How the hell am I supposed to approach a movie like this from a critical perspective? What I find most interesting about it, personally, is that it’s forcing me to have a real think about that question itself. But I don’t know what that means in terms of recommendation, which is ostensibly my purpose here.

I’m reminded of a recent New York Times article that got a lot of play about the film industry grousing about the reductivism of Rotten Tomatoes scores being so ubiquitous and a primary metric by which people decide to see movies or not. Such complaints come off as scapegoating–if the industry were more committed to making more interesting, less formulaic and insulting films, they’d probably get better scores–but a movie like this highlights that point from a different perspective. Trying to assign a number to this movie feels ultimately pointless; it’s too much like a Rorshach test for that kind of metric to carry any weight.

I don’t know if that’s a recommendation exactly. I don’t know if you should see this movie, if you’ll consider it worth your time or not. But I suspect–I hope, anyway–that it’s enough for you to figure that out for yourself.