Lady Bird (Gerwig; 2017)

Lady Bird has a lot in common with last year’s The Edge of Seventeen.  Both are teen movies focused on a central female character going through one of their last years of high school (Junior year in The Edge of Seventeen, Senior year in Lady Bird).  Both movies are smaller independent films.  Both movies feature the mother-daughter relationship of their primary character prominently, and most importantly neither movie views their protagonist as an angel, a tortured soul, nor a lovable scamp as is the standard for teen movies as long as the genre has existed.

There is one very significant and important difference (well, more than one, but one I’m going to mention) between the two, and that is while The Edge of Seventeen is so far as we know purely fictional, Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer and director Greta Gerwig.  Greta Gerwig is not the biggest of names in Hollywood, but she has acted in 40 films, written 10 screenplays, and Lady Bird marks her second appearance in the director’s chair, so while the name may not immediately be recognizable it’s probable you’ve at least seen her before.  As the last film I reviewed Roman J. Israel, Esq. showed, it’s very difficult for a writer/director to keep the distance from his own work needed to bring it an objective, critical eye, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be when not only are you writing and directing the movie but also that that movie is about yourself in a transformational year of your life.  Greta Gerwig not only manages it, though, she truly impresses and makes it look effortless.

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The one thing character studies have in common is, of course, their focus on a character and his or her personal journey.  They can have a standard plot in which the arc of the character mirrors a standard story arc complete with all the classic elements of story writing.  Or, they can be a more slice of life style piece in which putting the audience in the characters place is what is most important.  Lady Bird manages to be both.  Gerwig takes a year of her life and manages to be self-aware and objective enough to make that year an honest, sometimes brutally sometimes heartwarmingly so, look at a teenage girl yearning for independence from her family, but scared and unsure of exactly how to go about doing so and what the consequences will be once she succeeds.  She also knows enough about storytelling and dramatic license to give the story structure we rarely see in a film that relies so much on being so true to life.  She obviously distanced herself from the story at least a little as our protagonist is named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)  and not Greta Gerwig, but however much she distanced herself it was enough to allow her to make a story that paces itself like big studio manufactured biopic but with the genuine intimacy of a small indie piece.  Its insight into the emotions and thoughts of a young woman right on the cusp of adulthood is as deep as I’ve ever seen in a teen film, but that insight never once causes the movie to lose its light-hearted, comic tone and thus it remains thoroughly entertaining at the same time it causes us to raise our eyebrows and stroke our chins in thought and discovery.

It probably goes without saying that when a film has great insight into its characters that it implies those characters avoid generalities and stereotype in any form, but Lady Bird does give us some very real characters that will most definitely be recognizable by all, but refuse to fit neatly into any sort of box we may want to put them in.  It’s a film which seems to instinctive understand the thoughts and emotions which motivate us and therefore gives us characters that act and react organically to the world and the people around them rather than to what would make the story interesting, but whether due to an incredible storytelling instinct or due to luck that the events of Gerwin’s life just happened to make for a Hollywood story, those very organic actions still lead to an engaging story with very recognizable moments of self-discovery and excitement.

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What I and many others loved about The Edge of Seventeen was how its central character was something of a self-absorbed jerk who made her own problems for the most part, and had plenty of people around her willing and wanting to help her but she refused them all purely so she could feel unique and make herself into a martyr.  When she discovers, in the end, the kind of person she was and manages to change it wasn’t entirely organic, but the message was such an insightful one, very unique Hollywood but all too familiar in real life, that it was refreshing to see it dealt with on the big screen.  Lady Bird gives us largely the same character and gives us largely the same message, but even more organically and taking the character study to the next level.  Lady Bird doesn’t just realize that this is a type of person we all deal with if we aren’t that person ourself, but it also gives more insight into why the self-imposed martyr feels they need to act that way and what it is that drives them to become so overly self-aware and self-absorbed.

One thing which Lady Bird does better than any film I’ve ever seen for sure is portray and understand the mother-daughter relationship.  I suppose never having been a teenage girl myself, I can’t speak to Lady Bird‘s authenticity in this regard with a great amount of authority, but I walked out of the theater feeling like I finally understood the feeling between mother and daughter that simultaneously makes them each others closest friends and also strongest rivals.  Never before had I so honestly seen the sort of tug of war involved in the mother-daughter relationship in which they at once become both a surrogate and a matter of pride for the other.  They each want the other to truly be their own person, but that comes into conflict with the fact that they would be happiest if that own person was exactly like themselves.

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It goes without saying at this point that I think the cast of Lady Bird was remarkable, but while I may not need to say it, I should and I find it odd that I’ve written this much without saying so.  Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” herself is at once hysterical and captivating.  She portrays a girl who obviously is unsure of herself in nearly every way but feels she needs to hide that fact from the world excellently.  But, as nuanced as her performance is, Laurie Metcalfe as”Lady Bird’s” mother Marion McPherson is astounding.  If I did not know better I would assume that these two really were a mother-daughter pair and these were not roles they are playing, but that they are legitimately being captured on film.  Metcalfe plays her role with such a genuine hysterical love I have only recognized before in a parent, that it’s obvious she’s not only drawing on personal experience but that she’s well aware of how she really acts and reacts in her personal experience.  Lucas Hedges as “Lady Bird’s” first real boyfriend, Tracy Letts as her father, Odeya Rush and Kathryn Newton as her on again off again best friends, and honestly too many more to name without making this review look like a list of names from the Old Testament are all absolutely fantastic in their roles.  Gerwin must not just be an excellent writer but is also amazing as a casting director or at getting the most out of actor’s performances, or both.

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Final verdict:  I could probably go on about Lady Bird, but I think you get the idea and this is already becoming the longest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll stop there.  As much as I gush about Lady Bird, it is not the best movie of the year, though it is definitely one of the best teen movies I have ever seen and a film which should appeal to nearly everyone but the most cynical.   It’s a film that relies entirely on its script and its performances, but when those are both so perfectly nuanced, insightful, funny, and entertaining that’s all you really need.  This is not Greta Gerwig’s first outing as a writer nor as a director, but this is the film for which she will be remembered for a very long time.  I wholeheartedly recommend Lady Bird to nearly everyone, and excitedly look forward to whatever Gerwig brings us next.

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast (Condon; 2017)

From 1989 to 1994 Disney brought us four of their most revered classics (and, The Rescuers Down Under) all four of which were based on a classic tale hundreds of years old.  1989 started the Disney renaissance (it hadn’t had a truly classic animated film for decades before this) with The Little Mermaid based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  The original story was published in 1837, and so was the newest of the four tales they were to adapt over these five years, and focused on an unnamed mermaid who wanted to be human and marry a prince, and that is really where the similarities between the two stories end.  Disney “Disneyfied” the story by adding music, sidekicks, and by giving the story an action packed happy ending complete with a giant monster to battle.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was more similar to its original fairy tale originally penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but it was still Disneyfied in its own way.  While the original fairy tale did have the unnamed beauty falling in love with the beast at the end, there was no sideplot involving a jealous suitor and an angry mob attacking the castle, it was a story only about a couple overcoming their own prejudices and falling in love with one another.

Aladdin was the 1992 output from Disney studios, and is the one probably most removed from its original plot, but also the most improved through the Disneyfication process.  The original story from the 18th century is a somewhat unstructured story following the adventures of an arabic street urchin who does find a magic lamp with a genie, does marry a princess, and does encounter an evil sorcerer, but the specifics surrounding all those events greatly differ from the original story and the Disney reworking of the story did manage to add structure and humor missing from the original.

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Finally in 1994, Disney brought us Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” via the vehicle of The Lion King.  In the Disney version we are given a happy ending in which only the villain dies rather than nearly every major (and many minor) character in the story, plus they turned the story into “Hamlet: The Musical”, and as bad an idea as all of this sounds they actually pulled it off and gave the world a version of the bard which younger audiences will love even if the message of the story is exactly the opposite of the original.

All of these stories, except Aladdin, lost a little something in the translation, though they did all gain something else in return.  The Little Mermaid completely changed in theme and tone, but it gained optimism and excitement.  Beauty and The Beast lost time spent on the budding romance, but gained action and conflict, and The Lion King lost the darker themes of disfunction and depression, and became a story about perseverance and friendship instead.

Fast forward to 2010 when Disney brings us a live action version of Alice in Wonderland helmed by Tim Burton.  Once again Disney changes its source material, this time that source material being its own animated movie, and makes Alice a bit older, giving us a story in which she isn’t so much a little girl lost exploring an odd world but now becomes something of a feminist bad ass.  Well, at least kind of.  The movie didn’t entirely work, but it certainly didn’t fail, either, and most importantly it made enough box office money that Disney decided to continue the experiment of turning their animated classics into live action films.

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In Maleficent, they gave us a pretty great remake of Sleeping Beauty which ditches the archaic themes of the original and gives us a story from the villain’s point of view, and flips the story’s ending on its ear to give a message about what true love really is rather than what fairy tales portray.  Again, the movie had its issues, but it was a vast improvement on the original tale and the total change in point of view and theme was quite revolutionary.  In the live action Cinderella they didn’t change things up too much, but they dropped the music, and The Jungle Book did the same except for saving one complete musical number and a snippet of another, the real revelation here being the hyperrealistic animation of the animals which was a wonder to behold (and got the movie an Oscar).

Which brings us to right now and the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson as Belle, the titular beauty, and Dan Stevens as Beast.  This version is a reworking of their animated film, not the original story, so Gaston, LeFou, and the castle servants are all here, as is the music.  The only major changes to the original animated film are additions.  We are given a prologue showing how and why the prince was cursed to become Beast while the other additions are new musical numbers.  In all the film’s length is increased by roughly 40 minutes.

Since the story of Beauty and the Beast revolves entirely around the love story and the themes of learning to love someone you would never expect, the actors who have to sell the love story are of the utmost importance.  Dan Stevens, for his part, absolutely sells this part of Beast.  The addition of the opening scene in which we learn why the prince is cursed does an excellent job of setting up the prince as man unworthy of and unwilling to love.  When we first see him as Beast we completely buy him as a monster, and as the film progresses and he begins to open up, smile, joke, we absolutely get caught up in and believe his transformation.  Despite layers of makeup and CGI, Dan Stevens shines through all of that outer covering and lets us see the complex man inside.  As, for Emma Watson….  don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want the ending of La La Land spoiled (that will make sense once you read it, but don’t if you don’t want it spoiled, last warning).

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Emma Watson was originally cast as the lead in La La Land, but couldn’t ultimately play the role as she was too involved in filming Beauty and the Beast, so the part went to Emma Stone.  La La Land is another film that hinges completely on the actors selling the love story.  We need to know how important these two were to each other so that at the end when they finally acheive their dreams but have to do so at the cost of their own relationship, it hits you emotionally and doesn’t just become a matter of “so what?  they got what they wanted”.  That alternate world ending montage hits you right in the gut, but it never could have if the stakes weren’t so high, and the stakes couldn’t be high if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hadn’t just shown you they were in love, but made you feel it yourself and made you want a love like that of your own.  If Beauty and the Beast is any indication, Emma Watson could not have pulled that off.

Emma Watson is, however, a better singer than Emma Stone if Beauty and the Beast is enough to base that opinion on as she, and everyone in the cast, bring new life to the soundtrack which is arguably Disney’s best.  “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast” are all here, and all done spectacularly, better than in the original, in fact.  The live action adds a weight and depth to the musical numbers which the original simply doesn’t have, and all the performers here sing as well, if not even better, than in the animated version.  This is where Beauty and the Beast truly shines, and it shines so brightly in this regard as to be nearly blinding.

The visuals here are also incredible, though some things don’t work as well as when they are more classically animated, and those things are very specific to the point I’d almost have to make a list, which I won’t.  But, as a “for instance” Lumiere, played absolutely wonderfully by Ewan McGregor, is so much better in this style of animation as he now has some heft and is more than just eyes and a mouth drawn on a candelabra greatly improving the ways he can emote and move.  Mrs. Potts, however, doesn’t fare nearly so well, and works so poorly in this style as to be distracting whenever she is on screen.  The best way I know to put it is that while the camera work and special effects are always well crafted, the choices made as to the actual final appearance of all these elements can be extremely hit or miss, some being a wonder to behold others actively breaking the movie’s spell with their awkwardness.

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Finally, this review could not be complete without my mentioning how great it was to see Kevin Kline back on the screen as Belle’s father, Maurice.  The man has not missed a step and steals your attention every single time he appears on screen.  This man’s bad performances are rare, and I would rank his turn here among some of his best (though, nothing will ever beat his Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, in my opinion).

Final recommendation:  Beauty and the Beast‘s story ultimately fails where it’s most important, but it excels in most other areas.  The spectacle is, well, spectacular, the music is not just as great as you remember, but is perhaps even better, and most of the cast does a great job.  This could be a movie that disappoints due to its nearly exact duplication of the animated version with the few additions not being enough to make it anything new.  But, if you need a Disney fix and don’t care about repetition, then Beauty and the Beast is about as good a repetition as you can get, I just wish Emma Watson could have made me believe.

 

La La Land (Chazelle; 2016)

A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality.  In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation.  A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance.  This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.

La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream.  Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part.  The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it.  If this sounds familiar, it is meant to.  The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say.  The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not actually real people.  They, too, are metaphors.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie.   While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force.  Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded.  When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance.  Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment.  For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.

The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about.  What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating.  Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number.  Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.

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Chazelle isn’t the only one who can balance.

The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film.  Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times.  Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person.  All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.

La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made.  The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie.  You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well.  But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well.  What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding.  I recommend this film to absolutely everyone.  If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one.  It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.

Rating:  9.6 out of 10

 

Moana (Clements, Hall, Musker, and Williams; 2016)

Disney gives us its first Polynesian princess in the movie named for her, Moana, and quite the charming princess she is.  We first see her as a precocious infant, not afraid of the scary stories her grandmother tells the clan’s children, wanting to explore everywhere she can, and doing whatever she must to help others even at her own expense, even when she’s not old enough to be out of diapers, or swaddling clothes in this case.  This is typical of the modern era Disney princess, and while I’m among the many out there who are very glad to see that the modern Disney princess is very much a hero in her own right and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, Moana shows that this formula is already starting to wear at least a little thin, and they really need to begin watching out for complacency in their story telling.

The major flaws in Moana, and what keeps it from being amongst the very best of this year’s crop of excellent animated features, are its very formulaic story telling technique, its very limited cast of characters, and its overly repetitive sense of humor.  The flaws really all go together, and negatively play off of one another.  The film really has only two major characters of any note, Moana herself (voice acted by Auli’i Cravalho) and the Hawaiian demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).  Moana’s parents and grandmother do appear toward the beginning of the film and various villains are scattered here and there throughout, but the vast majority of the time we spend with these two and only these two.  This really limits the types of interaction which can be had, and while their relationship does, of course, develop and grow throughout the film, that is the whole point of the movie, it does so using the same methods over and over.  They argue about the same things again and again, find themselves dealing with obstacle the same way over and over, and while I love self referential humor perhaps a bit too much, they make so many jokes referencing the fact that they are animated characters singing to each other in yet another Disney princess movie that at a certain point I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Enough already!”

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We’re full time parents, full time chieftans, and full time formulaic stereotypes.

But, while the plot and humor in Moana may be far too formulaic and forced, the Polynesian setting and mythology of the movie makes for incredibly new and original settings and situations as well as some of the most glamorous animation to hit the screen in this, or any other, year, really rivaled only by Kubo and the Two Strings in how utterly beautiful it is.  Part of me wants to list some of the feats Moana and Maui have to perform throughout their heroes’ quest just to demonstrate how unusual and fascinating they are, but that would spoil one of the best parts of the film.  The feats are really just episodic events that don’t play into each other for the most part, and really could be shown to happen in any order whatsoever, but that can be forgiven as it seems the film’s authors are trying to give us as much Polynesian mythology as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, and the results are a lot of fun and a wonder to look at.

While they don’t make a big deal of it in their advertising, Moana is a musical.  I’m guessing the reason Disney doesn’t showcase this element of the movie in the marketing is because the music on display here is nothing particularly noteworthy.  Auli’i has more songs than anyone else in the film, and she is an excellent singer, it’s just that she is given very mundane, derivative music to work with.  Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most catchy song in the film, and he was a far better singer than I ever would have expected, but a day after my viewing and I already am having a hard time remembering much of his song outside the chorus and lyrics.  Much like everything else in the film, the music is put together with talent, it’s just not anything we haven’t heard before time and time again.

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Just look at this little dude!  Look at him!

Moana is a film that, in a way, really deserves different critiques for different audiences.  This is a film that absolutely can be enjoyed by all ages, there was a very little girl who seemed to be just learning to speak and looked to be of Ploynesian descent who sat with her family directly behind me for my viewing of the film, and while she was very talkative leading up to the film, she was absolutely silent the entire time until the very end when she erupted in applause and cheers.  When I was leaving the theater I saw her posing for her parents with a cutout stand of Moana, a look of joy and excitement on her face that let me know this was one of those movies she will remember fondly for her entire life.  For older children, a grand time will still be had, and I have no doubt they will be bugging their parents for the Blu-Ray one day so they can watch it over and over again.  As for the adults in the audience, you will be entertained, particularly by the awe-inspriring animation, but you will recognize the story as one you’ve seen over and over again, it’s just the trappings that are new this time around, but those trappings are pretty damn neat, neat enough that you can forgive, if not entirely overlook, the films pretty large problems.

Rating:  6.5 out of 10