What if this is the Best Version in Lady Bird?

When her mother (Laurie Metcalf) states that all she wants is for her daughter to be the best possible version of herself she can be, our titular anti-hero (Saoirse Ronan) delivers that biting and heartbreaking line that’s been playing in all the trailers for Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale, “What if this is the best version?”

It leaves one to wonder if this film is the best version of the writer-director?  The story of a Catholic school senior in Sacramento, California finding her way while dreaming of going to college in NYC is highly autobiographical.  And while it brings out the best in Gerwig as an artist, I can’t help but hope (like Metcalf’s character) for more from her that will surprise and delight us in the years to come.  Many of the quirks people have come to love or loathe in Gerwig (mostly from her work with Noah Baumbach) are present here, but distilled through the amazing Ronan they become more palpable and endearing to the masses (and I write this as a fan of Gerwig in all her faults and glories as an actress).  Likewise, Lady Bird longs for acceptance of her whole self, warts and all, from those around her, especially her mother. Continue reading

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Land Needs a Deed not Deeds in Mudbound

Indeed, you might need a deed to own land, but it’s all those horrible deeds that lead to systematic oppression that tie the tortured souls of Mudbound to the land.  Even in the afterlife they can’t escape the land, which swallows their flesh and churns up their bones, the indentured survivors plopping their dead loved ones’ bodies right into the ground, rendering all their deeds and deeds undone.

While still stewing over the fact his vile racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) sold the only land the family ever had, Henry (Jason Clark) is so damned obsessed with the idea of owning land and working it that he uproots his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan, ever graceful in her depiction of a woman’s arc from blissful naivety to pessimistic pining) and young daughters to go live on a godforsaken plot of harsh farmland in Mississippi.  There the work and hardships are shared with an African-American family led by the spirited Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his stoic wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) who have been toiling the land in quiet dignity for generations, first as slaves, and now as sharecroppers.

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True Crime, The Last Dossier, and the Melancholia of Moving Paintings and Black and White Photography

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon sounds like a rip-snorting true crime epic.  The labyrinthine conspiracy that lead to the murders of numerous Osage Indians for their oil headrights and the botched FBI investigation that followed is rife with terror and tragedy, but although Grann attempts a few passages of ponderous heft, most of the book is a dry by-the-numbers procedural that presents far too many names and suspects to keep coherent track of, never allowing us to latch on to any one person, and leaving us lost in the immense scope of the dastardly deeds.  The book is slated for a film adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and if there is anyone who can provide both focus and pep to the story, it’s probably him…though Eric “hit or miss” Roth is to pen screenplay, leaving me to worry the Osage might never get their due.

Though it’s presented like a true crime book, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier couldn’t be more fantastical and “out there.”  Mercifully brief (compared to The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this dossier compiled by Special Agent Tammy Preston following the events of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is designed to feed the fans.  Continue reading

I’m the Best One in Blade Runner 2049

“I’m the best one,” a coolly sinister replicant (Sylvia Hoeks) declares amidst haunting imagery of walking backwards into dark, surging water in Blade Runner 2049‘s chilling climax.

If one is to believe the declaration of a doctor (Carla Juri) who specializes in fabricating human memories for implantation into replicants earlier in the film… that there’s a little bit of the artist in each one…then one might draw the conclusion that replicant mentioned above is speaking for none other than director Denis Villeneuve.  He’s operating on a well-known (and much copied) property in this “30 years later” update of Ridley Scott’s classic neo-noir sci-fi…but he’s very much put his own stamp on it.  There’s also a bit of “killing your darlings” in his daring showmanship, symbolically murdering his forefather Scott along with his oft-compared contemporaries David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.  Yes, Denis…you are the best one.

But there’s more subtext (and context) than just “the mark of the artist” in Blade Runner 2049…there’s also philosophical pondering on artificial intelligence, slavery, and what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, on the surface, the film tick-tock’s through the motions of your traditional noir detective story. Continue reading

There is a Meadow in my Perfect World of Wind River

The Native American reservation of Wind River is as far from perfect as one could imagine, a destitute landscape of snow and silence where forgotten people can’t rely on luck…they survive or die. But the inhabitants there can still dream of better places. They can make their way if they fight for it.

The film opens with a thoughtful young woman’s voice-over reading a poem about “a meadow in my perfect world” while we watch on the screen a battered young woman running for her life across a deadly nighttime landscape of moonlight snow and sub-zero winds. It’s another fifteen minutes or so before we witness her body discovered days later by Cory Lambert (an Oscar-worthy Jeremy Renner), a game-and-wildlife tracker hunting a lioness on the reservation, who has his own tragic past that casts a shadow on the current events. Into town comes a green but game FBI agent (a fabulous Elizabeth Olsen, evoking a young, steely Michelle Pfeiffer), who along with the reservation police force (lead by a stoically sardonic Graham Greene) and our determined tracker forms a posse to catch the predator who drove the young woman out into the cold and her ultimate death.

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s neo-noir meditation on grief and resilience is a brutal and beautiful thing that also operates on the surface level as a rip-snorting crime drama/police procedural which satisfies our hunger for the perverse while defying our expectations with novelistic depth of back-story and character. Continue reading

Nevertheless They Persisted at Dunkirk

The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.

Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”

The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air. Continue reading

Finding Strength to Pass on in The Beguiled and Moka

“I admire your strength,” Corporal John McBurney (a devilishly manipulative Colin Farrell) remarks to the headmistress while under the watchful care of the women and girls of the Farnsworth Seminary for ladies, a bastion of secluded tranquility hiding roiling pent-up emotions during the Civil War. He is an injured Union soldier (or perhaps an AWOL mercenary?) discovered in the woods by the nature-loving Amy (Oona Laurence…a stand-in perhaps for director Sofia Coppola?). They are self-sufficient well-bread Southern Belles shielded from the horrors of war, but full of fanciful imaginings and longing.

“I’m just trying to give them what they need to survive in these times,” Martha Farnsworth (a masterful modicum of repressed anxiety underneath a gauze of stern maternal stoicism as played by Nicole Kidman) replies.

Sofia Coppola’s re-imagining of the Southern gothic potboiler novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously brought to screen in 1971 by Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood) is a lean, mean, beautiful thing streamlined through white lace and steamy moss-strewn environs with seductive Louisiana plantation swamps draped in lush symbolism standing-in for war-torn Virginia. Every single meticulously composed shot…from Amy, both resting and sentinel, on the hulking branch of a giant moss-covered live oak…to ennui-suffering teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) leaning back in her chair in the streaky sunlight while the younger girls play in the tall grass…to a candlelit dinner darkly roasted with insidious intentions…is like a moving painting. There’s not a single shot directed by Coppola and executed by Philippe Le Sourd wasted here, all ripe with symbolism or moving the plot along. Likewise, sparse to-the-point dialogue (the entire language of the film mirroring the bluntness of Martha’s speaking and pitting it against the flowery antagonism of Corporal McBurney’s invitations) moves everything forward. Music, be it wonderful renditions of the olde-timey standard “Lorna” or the suspenseful ambience of Phoenix’s barely-there musical score, is exactly where it should be and precisely where it’s not. Continue reading

How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

All Defiant on the Western Front in Wonder Woman

Early on in Patty Jenkins’ confident and electrifying big-screen Wonder Woman epic, after getting rescued by the film’s hero (a robust yet appealingly vulnerable Gal Gadot), our guy in distress (a somewhat charming gritty Ken Doll with a sense of humor, Chris Pine) upon being asked about how he stacks up to other men says, “I’m above average.” In some ways, that’s the best way to describe Wonder Woman in comparison to every other superhero movie. It’s above average. But to leave it at that would be deny the film’s subversive charms and contextual place in the pantheon of fantasy films as mirrors into the audience’s psyche.

Let’s not dismiss, however, just how fun it is to simply watch an above average film in this over-saturated genre. Jenkins and her crew show great creativity and tactical savviness in their treatment of all the genre clichés while choosing a relaxed and serialized pacing in the action, following each big set piece with moments of more intimate drama and character development (witness celebratory Belgian villagers and our heroes dancing in the streets in the evening snowfall that seems ripped from a great war-time romance).

The film’s inherently silly exposition (routed in Greek myth) is made palpable thanks to beautifully rendered Renaissance-style paintings of Greco-Roman fantasy come to life – smartly linking the lore and art of old with modern comic book pages and colorful cells flipped through feverishly by childhood’s fingers. Playful camera angles bring to life a rousing aeronautical flyover of an exploding enemy bunker and battle horses and motorcycles racing through war-torn woods, while slo-mo is used judiciously when warranted and not just for the sense of style. Continue reading

In Space No One Can See You Roll Your Eyes

I mean c’mon now, is this gonna happen every dang time, Ridley Scott?

(And for those worried about spoilers, here, the following simplified synopsis could apply to any number of films in the franchise or ripoffs thereof, so it’s not really giving anything away.)

A spaceship gets a distress call. They unwisely follow it to an uncharted planet and trace it to a spooky crashed ship. Some folks get mauled to death / infected / etc… by some weaponized parasitic aliens. A few brave souls escape back to their ship in orbit. Ooops, something got on board. Bang! Some lady blows it out an air hatch. Dun dun dun…but she better not rest so easily…

I felt like Kristen Wiig’s Aunt Linda the Film Critic character from SNL for most of Alien: Covenant’s two hours…exasperated and rolling my eyes. Continue reading