“Lady Bird”

Actress Greta Gerwig’s directional debut in “Lady Bird” has a lot a humanities major would love: John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, August Wilson, and palindromes galore, and even Kierkegaard.  That being said there is also a lot that irritates.

This reviewer is still living in the Midwest and went to Catholic schools. I get Sacramento as the Midwest of California, and I get nuns. But as a rebellion film “Lady Bird” falls short.

Our narrator is Christine, (also my name) but “Lady Bird” is her name of choice. Lady Bird has an endearing habit of correcting adult statements with, “that we know of yet.” Her youth is open to all possibilities, yet she ends up back in her hometown after giving the big city only months.

This is a coming-of-age mother-daughter film, that while winning the Golden Globe for best Comedic Picture and  crediting Saoirse Ronan with Best Comedic Actress,  left me wanting. The repartee is alternately cute and affrontive. When NYC seems too far for her baby to go, mom Marion says   “What about terrorism ?”  LB eye rolls with an imperative: “Don’t be a Republican.” It is well-timed and funny, and merrily we roll along for ninety-three minutes.

We have the eating of unconsecrated wafers on the sacristy floor, and the derisive nomenclature akin to Trump’s “Rocket Boy”. Here it takes a Catholic twist bending in with a sacrilegious “Immaculate Fart”. Adolescent, yes. Rebellious, really?

A devoted, but jobless father( Tracy Letts), an over-worked and brittle mother ( Laurie Medcalf) , a  gay boy friend, and lust for the in-crowd’s acceptance all come into play as we would expect. Reading Zinn’s  “ The People’s History” during Mass, a creative touch. But rebellious?

We feel for Jules, LB’s “ghosted” friend, and for the Thrift Store prom dress scene with mom.  “Can’t you just say that I look nice?! , LB opines. Her alternative sassiness  and angst, and consummate self-centerness makes for a perfect adolescent documentary.

Lady Bird is plucky, passionate, and funny, but the film leaves little in the way of surprises in a teen’s life. A catharsis for Gerwig, maybe, but for most “ho hum”. My daughter’s rebellion would make a better story, just saying.

“I, Tonya”

What a delightful surprise! The film’s trailers had left me cold , but “I, Tonya” may just turn out to be one of my favorites of 2017. Its title “I, Tonya” assuredly reflects “I, Claudius” in the plotting, scheming, and poisoning arena. More than a “mockumentary”, this superbly fresh film forces us to rethink our initial judgments on the event that banned Tonya Harding from ever again competing on ice.

Steven Rogers’ screenplay is pitch-perfect. And the same can be said of Craig Gillespie’s seamless directing. The tension build-up shows all the ways to disable people, making us as sympathetic to Harding as we were initially to her Olympic teammate, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was purposely kneecapped. We are all implicated in our talk show laughter at “trashy Tonya”, and while Tonya is never glamorized or completely exonerated in this film, she is shown as the abused, feisty underdog~the polar opposite of the reigning figure-skating elite.

Though five inches taller than Harding, Australian actress Margot Robbie captures the fiery swagger and spirit of a little girl with ice princess dreams. Robbie, herself an amateur ice hockey league skater, was helped by skating doubles Heidi Mungy and Anna Malkova. Visual effects and actual footage of Tonya’s routines also serve to bolster Robbie and celebrate the beauty of the sport.

The film does not move chronologically, but begins with interviews. Flashbacks serve emotional purpose. One by one, the principals tell their truth, or not.  Most alarming is Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya’s mother, for which she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress with Cruella De Vil flair.

Not since “Mommy Dearest” has a birth mother shown such villainous disregard for the well-being of her child. Yet, until the final coup-d-etat, she believes she is raising a strong, self-sufficient child with her “hair brush and knife throwing methods”. Her scathing admonition to Tonya contributes to her portrait as a rancorous bitch: “ You fuck dumb: you don’t marry dumb.” The irony is not lost coming from a women who has had six husbands. Tonya is the fifth child of husband number four.

On the ice at three and a half, Tonya (here Maizie Smith) proves her mettle and wins the coach who will drive her to be the first American woman skater ever to do the triple axel. The talented McKenna Grace has a few extraordinary scenes where she plays  the eight to twelve year-old Tonya. She will steal your heart as she did in “Gifted” (2017).

Robbie, while a standout and worthy of the Oscar here,  has an awkward time playing a fifteen year-old (as does Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Jeff Gillooly. ) Putting braces on Robbie’s  teeth did not erase the years, or Robbie natural poise. And Jeff’s, “You Like food?” for a first date icebreaker seems forced. LaVona accompanies them to the diner, by the way.

Domestic violence, guns, and alcohol all play out with lawyers, restraining orders and reunions. The tone of “laugh til you cry” is modulated to have the viewers’ emotions roiled. It works big time. Director, cast and writer mesh to amazing effect.

Margot Robbie’s face is unforgettable as she applies her blush-like war paint before high-stepping it onto the ice. She is a powerhouse in purple.

Julianne Nicholson plays the sensible coach, Diane Rawlinson. She is a foil to the sleazy and the irrational; yet, she demands that Tonya play the game for her second chance: drop the metallic blue nails and the unconventional music, spit out the gum, watch the foul-mouth tirades, and ease up on the cigarette smoking. Tonya’s asthma inhaler is often seen on the ice. A favorite close-up shot is of her skate blade slicing the butt of her tossed smoke.

The score is well-matched from “Dream a Little Dream of Me” to “Barracuda”. The last shots of the 2003 Tonya being punched in the boxing ring  are horrendous. When she states that “violence is what I knew anyway”, we get the irony. She had become a punching bag, spitting blood as blue-collar scrapper, and staring at us from the mat’s surface.

Gender, class and politics, all play a role in mirroring and satirizing a fallen star, her associates, and the expectations of the era.

Shawn Eckhardt, the “bodyguard” and delusional emasculated male, is another sad, damaged character. “None of my women get the last word.” , he chortles as he stuffs his caramel corn into his mouth. As the perpetrator of much of the racketeering, psychological warfare, and assault, actor Paul Walter Hauser eases naturally  into the role. Docu-drama never looked easier.

Bozos hanging out at “The Golden Buddha” at the stroke of midnight fuel the humor. One only wishes that virtual reality gaming might keep RL ( real life) safer for the next generation. With avatars there may be  less infiltrating in the real world. Shawn’s brags of being four steps ahead of the FBI. And Tonya mimics her own mockers as she smirks: “ a secret agent who lives with his parents”.  As the lyrics are sung “ How can you stop the sun from shining, how can a loser ever win”, viewers will think that the disgraced Tonya won with this movie. And we will think that we did, too: A must see.

“Loving Vincent”

Four of my review-followers took their time to message me not to miss the innovative film, “Loving Vincent”. I went alone mid-week, early afternoon, and was surprised to see forty people in the theatre. The uniqueness of this Polish Film Institute’s handpainted animated endeavor had been well-publicized evidently. Over one hundred artists captured Van Gogh’s brush strokes through his familiar interiors, portraits and vistas. The screen shimmers in light and substance.

Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welshman and cinematographer Tristan Oliver deserve accolades. “Loving Vincent” is the world’s first fully painted film. Over 65,000 frames were created to bring screenwriters Kobiela’s, Welshman’s , and Jacek Dehnel’s story and homage to the screen.

Structured like a murder mystery, the known acquaintances of the thirty-seven-year-old Van Gogh are met and interviewed by Armand Roulin, the son of the village postmaster, who liked Vincent. The elder Roulin saw Vincent almost daily  in his rounds, and he respected Vincent’s work ethic and his daily letters to his brother, Theo.

Chris O’Dowd is the elder Roulin, who sends his son to deliver the last letter Vincent wrote to Theo. This kind courtesy, delivering a dead man’s letter, has us meeting some of the magnificent cast of PBS’s “Poldark”. Both Aiden Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson have key roles as the boatman and inn proprietress. Dr. Paul Gachet, Vincent’s psychiatrist/doctor is played by the gifted Jerome Flynn. Vincent Van Gogh is rendered beautifully by Robert Gulaczyk, who reminded me of Ralf Fines in his nuanced performance. Dr. Gachet housekeeper, Louise, calls Vincent an evil nutcase, “Nothing has been the same since he came here.” “ He killed himself on Sunday~his own ungodly act.” We feel his art change how we see the world, rather than how he left it.” The cast is superb. Art’s gift inspiring.

Van Gogh’s life framework is told through his paintings. The cause of his death is surmised. Suicide and the tortured soul made human, rather than clichéd. We learn a few new factoids about Vincent, like the fact that he made all sorts of noises when he painted.

One of my favorite visual metaphors was Vincent’s changing reflection moving in a cup of water. His use of yellow and blue pigment has never been so impactful to me as when I watched this film. Stay for the complete credits and listen to the lyrics:” Now, I think I know what you tried say to me~how you suffered for your sanity..”

The score should win this oil-painted animation more kudos.  “Starry, Starry Night” will bring tears to your eyes, some rolling down the canvas of your face.

“Testament Of Youth”

What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long,British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is  young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.

There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother,provincial parents,tantrums,tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.

Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children,and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.

The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.

“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.

Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”

Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.

Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts;she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.

Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.

Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it,but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.

“Dope”

What former inner-city English teacher wouldn’t love a film that begins with three disparate definitions for one word and then showcases a brilliant adolescent ? Yet, celebrating not fitting into the stereotyped role gets complex when Malcolm ( Shameik Moore) finds himself caught with one-hundred thousand dollars worth of drugs. This coming-of-age film is clever,funny and full of hip-hop music, which is integral to the message of making the right choices responsibly. “My fault-my weight to carry” are Malcolm’s words. The fact is that students in the inner-city have too much weight to carry given the crazy circumstances they can encounter so innocently.

The three definitions for “dope” outline the journey of our protagonist: an illegal substance,a stupid person,and excellent. Malcolm and his two buddies are like the three Musketeers,Mickey-Mouse-style. They are “geeky”,BMX bike-riding students,who get their shoes stolen and start up a punk band called “Oreo”. These three,one a lesbian, love the 90’s and hip-hop music in general. The fact that Sean Combs and Forest Whitaker are the co- producers and that Pharrell Williams scored the music may have nothing to do with this,but one of the best scenes is on a city bus with every rider bobbing his and her head to the beat of their music. The use of abrupt slow-motion is delightful and speaks to the power of beat and lyrics joined and joining.

“Dope” was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. I loved the metaphor of “the slippery slope” and how it was used both comedically and as a thematic metaphor. So many of life’s ironies were touched upon: “the pray away the gay”, the male dominance “pissing contests”,the use of technology for good and for evil. I enjoyed the Tolkienesque “Return To The Kings” t-shirt and the drug lord’s son, who could not rap, and the laughing Hispanic maid.The drug use always was portrayed as humiliating,  be it in vomit or public urination.One scene at a Starbucks-like facility drew one of my favorite lines. After the drug dealer and respected CEO’s daughter was arrested, the  black patron who called the police was interviewed. “How am I supposed to eat my pound cake ( we don’t eat scones,you know) and drink my vanilla chai latte with that hoe peeing in the bushes right next to me.” Stereotypes again turned on their respective heads.

A chain of events like tutoring a love interest,being tempted with playing sexualized “Mother May I”, and shakily aiming a gun at a gang member’s face,all lead to a more normal Six Flag outing and a college admission letter.Shameik Moore, at twenty,was amazing in his flat-topped brilliance. The fact that he so resembled a former student by the name of Darryl R. made this film all the more delightful in its truth-seeking. The cliche “Don’t sell yourself short” applies here. See this movie.