Lady Bird (2018)

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Landing in cinemas finally with its UK wide release, is a stunning and heartwarming coming of age tale, expertly realised by both it’s cast and debut director Greta Gerwig, who captures and pens such meaningful insight into the trials of growing up.

Sporting a red hair style and a pink cast on her arm, American student Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is at a Sacramento Catholic high school trying to find her way and hopefully fly the nest to the East Coast and culture of New York. Her teenage way of thinking causes frictions with her mum Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who sees Lady Bird as being ungrateful. As the teenager tries to find her way, she may indeed find out how important her family is too.

For a debut writing and directing venture, this is almost solid gold from Greta Gerwig. She weaves in great moments of humour between sudden hits of emotion and poignancy, these ups and downs are reflective of the central mother-daughter dynamic and though it isn’t aimed at me, I still definitely connected to the story thanks to seeing how my sister and mum were and are. It’s this fantastic resonance that Gerwig ensures is consistent and truly believable.

Her directing is practically perfect, the choice to numerously have the camera tracking right to left on shots of places within the city help explore the setting nicely and by the end of it all we’re affected by this wonder, boredom and ultimately grounded connection to home. Gerwig gives this film a spirited exploration of adolescent angst with many fantastic confidently static scenes at home and school to illustrate the relatable turmoil of parent-child turbulence.

This is a film that made me and others laugh multiple times. The comedy of difficult teens and the setting of apparently boring Sacramento in 2002/3 is mined startlingly well. Nostalgia through visual fashion, prop decoration and music gifts this a palpable sense of reality and fits in with the same greatly moulded Richard Linklater world of ‘Boyhood’. As someone with a theatre degree I loved the scenes with drama games and warm ups, they’re on point and very funny indeed, especially a sports coach tackling show staging. The whole aspect of Lady Bird and her trouble to find a place in the strife of school social circles is fantastically scripted.

Fundamentally this is a narrative revolving around the often strained mother-daughter bond. They enjoy open houses, shopping and in-car cassette tapes but of course they have their sticky moments of arguments and troubled face-offs. Come the final frame of the movie, the emotional core of family and knowing where your roots are rings loud, though there are plenty of laughs, this is a film that made me tear up from time to time I must say.

Saoirse Ronan is splendid and her talent shines through in the titular role of a teenage girl living the highs and lows of joy, first loves, best friends, craving popularity and wanting nothing more than being out of her mums influence. It’s Lady Bird’s name, bold hair statement and arm cast that are worn like symbols of individuality as she hopes to understand her place in the world. Laurie Metcalf excellently plays the caring yet put upon mother and is convincing with pent up frustrations and maternal tensions that boil over at times. One scene with her near the end is so simply shot but she acts so well I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Tracy Letts provides gentle humour as the calm dad with a kind heart and his character is nicely fleshed out. Lucas Hedges I must commend on creating an impressive blossoming romance before his path is developed and a scene between him and Ronan outside a coffee shop almost rips your heart in two.

I’d say that nearly the entirety of this coming of age comedy/drama had me feeling warmly fuzzy and beaming widely as I watched. Family and home is important and this film comically and charmingly holds a mirror on that central theme.

8/10

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I, Tonya (2018)

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Hitting the ice rink like a jacked up Torvill and Dean, is an award contending biographical yarn like hardly any other. It’s at once frenzied and focused and almost consistently splitting to burst with on point black comedy.

In the 1970’s, talented 4 year old ice skater Tonya Harding is pressured to keep training by her abusive and chain-smoking mother LaVona (Allison Janney). By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) reaches 15 she can be just as abrasive but falls for rink-side spectator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Through years of abuse, practice and unfair judgement, Harding gets caught up in an Olympic scandal come 1994.

Pacing wise, this film shuttles along like a bobsleigh at breakneck speeds, it’s a fully riveting story from start to finish and I must say I was on board throughout. The characters, based on real people are fully realised and interact wonderfully, Craig Gillespie directs with an eye to tell this story like the funny yet darkly tragic events were and the rags to semi-riches and back again narrative is as finessed as 1984’s Bolero routine.

Honestly, ice dancing has never looked and felt more intense, engaging and visceral as it does here. These quite spectacular and captivating sequences of figure skating dances are wonderfully incorporated into a script by Steven Rogers that sizzles with humour and ultimately real heartbreak. The final stages of the film, led by Margot Robbie are written and performed masterfully and make the fun time, plus often brutal moments fade away as we see just how important the world of skating is to the titular figure. It’s a narrative of prominence and buffoonery, domestic violence and doggedness shown in such a clever and engrossing way that exceeded my expectations.

The Oscar nomination for Best Editing is deserved, ‘Baby Driver’ may excel with it’s editing in terms of car chases and sound styling cuts but ‘I, Tonya’ is edited greatly by Tatiana S. Riegel, who slices through the film like a skate blade would. It all helps keep up the exciting speed, blend the routines in seamlessly and showcase the second half madness of the incident as something you may expect to see in a slick gangster movie, if the gangsters were inept.

Seeing characters account their views of the matter in an interview style is a perfect method of storytelling that bolsters the unreliable narrative from pretty much everyone. You never really know who could be lying, exaggerating or speaking truths and that’s what makes this such a ride to watch. The breaking of the fourth wall is utilised also and sometimes it is a cliche but it’s used to sparingly good effect to heighten the idiot humour or further the character driven explanation to us.

Robbie may not win the gold medal of an Academy Award but if she did, it definitely would be warranted. It’s evident Tonya craves adoration at first from her mum and then from the public and the Australian actor sells that aspect well. This is her finest performance in ever as she brings the Oregon born Tonya Harding to explosive life. There’s crazy eye, comic delivery, heartfelt softness and broken vulnerability all in the mix of her committed turn as the less than picturesque all American figure skater. Janney swears like a sailor and steals lots of the scenes as the overbearing strict maternal type but there’s times you can see kindness behind the cigarette smoke before she comes out with a cracker once again. Sebastian Stan is alright in his role as Harding’s husband but isn’t anything special, in fact his friend Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser is a bonafide boob of epic proportions, providing ample amount of humour as a moronic slob thinking himself some clever agent type.

I haven’t even mentioned how brilliant the soundtrack and score are either, suffice to say I really really liked this film. I thought it’d be good but it’s soared past that into greatness, thanks to Margot, Allison, sublime directing and editing and a story device that bounces around with the notion of Tonya Harding as a heroine or not.

8.5/10

 

 

Phantom Thread (2018)

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Like a fine piece of silk or a masterfully woven garment; this film is a stunning look at the toxic ups and downs of an odd relationship. It’s also, as expected, another fantastic showcase of acting from method man Daniel Day-Lewis.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a dressmaker who enjoys his time and order, he lives with Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sister who has grown used to the ways of her sibling. Reynolds falls for a young waitress one day and she becomes his muse and model, she is in love with him but Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) sees that this is a relationship with differences and difficulties attached.

The whole film has a delicate touch, as if being handled by a careful seamstress itself. In any other hands I could imagine this story being slow or maybe even boring, but with Paul Thomas Anderson in charge it feels like almost perfect direction. PTA conjures up an effortlessly classic narrative that is filled with wit and visuals of beautiful design. He’s directed and written a wonderfully engaging product with stitches of humour sewed in greatly; which I wasn’t expecting when I first saw the trailer.

Breakfast clearly is the most important meal/time of the day for Mr. Woodcock; his ordered quiet he desires is seen on numerous occasions and when that calm is disturbed he becomes an animated and viciously spoken gentleman. What works so well, in character traits like this is the sound design within the film. It highlights the grating noises that he detests, such as a knife buttering toast or pouring tea, I found it an enhanced quality of sound that really brings focus to the character’s head space.

The lengths someone will go to, in a strained play of wanting attention and love becomes a significant thread; which is fascinating to watch unfold. It even gives the movie almost thriller aspects of darkness as their pairing moves forward. It’s in some of these lengths that the film does, for me at least, feel like a tiny drag. After the hour mark and one big step in their relationship, the movie feels slightly stretched and the bookend scenes are somewhat of a cliche but this is just me messily unpicking the tapestry of a film that has next to no weaknesses.

It may not be his best turn but Day-Lewis is a revelation as most would come to expect by now. There’s a charming intellect to his character and he plays with that quite a bit which provides some of the surprising many laughs. He touches greatly on the irritable and sassy side of this designer too and you can almost fear Reynolds in his concrete way of wanting everything to his perfecting standards. Krieps is stunning as this blossoming figure who grows into herself, firstly thanks to Reynolds’ aid but then down to her own self belief and desire. She too acts the comedy moments well, her loud quirks that annoy Woodcock are bliss. The two of them together work amazingly and concoct a truly believable strange yet mesmerising relationship. Manville says practically a thousand words with just a brilliant glare and she brilliantly equals Reynolds’ sharp tongue. On the other hand she has a nuanced display of her softer side in the growing adoration she feels for Alma.

I knew this would be a beautiful film but I wasn’t expecting to get wrapped up in it as much as I did. There’s great bursts of relationship-led comedy and well executed romantic tension that swirl and tumble neatly into a masterful entrancing design.

7.5/10

Downsizing (2018)

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A film about a huge idea has never felt so small and yet so long.

Earth is facing more climate change issues and the devastating toll of overpopulation sees Norwegian Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invent a procedure that shrinks humans to be inches tall. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) sees this as a chance to live a better life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but she runs scared from the downsize and leaves Paul to look differently at his way of life, with this newly gained perspective.

This was a movie that initially had me very intrigued and excited. The trailers and Alexander Payne credit gave me good reason to see this as a neat and quirky release but upon seeing the film a few months later, I must say that’s it’s far from the kooky gem it could have been. There’s an unshakeable mundane quality to the storytelling and the majority of the movie left me switched off and yawning.

To its credit, this is a fun idea to play around with but the idea never really gets played around with that much. It’s within the set up and initial thirty or so minutes, that the visual humour of small scaled people with large props works well. Leisureland; a community especially designed for the downsized is a cool idea and all the notions around that are executed very well. It’s just a shame that the movie feels like a split from one half to the next and this shrinking set story from Payne and Jim Taylor becomes one devoid of comedy and stretched to uninteresting ends.

The main problem, I feel with this film, is that almost all the characters left me bored. I never connected to them or felt engaged by their progression. The way they talked was uninspired and certain actions made by some of the characters, between Paul and Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc felt truly out of place. This idea of a love blossoming like a big yellow rose didn’t ring true. I didn’t really see them as loving each other at all and a lot of the characters; Paul, Audrey, Dave, Dusan and others are cartoonish almost unbearable people, so to follow them for over two hours left me wanting the film to shrink away.

Matt Damon is meant to be a pathetic character and he does carry this constant feeling of uselessness to his role and then manages to turn just upon seeing this inspirational cleaner turn up after a drug fuelled party. It’s the mostly dull and pathetic moping to his character that becomes annoying; to emphasise my point I want to mention Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ who is a talented musician but a pathetic man who never gets anywhere, that is a film and performance where you still feel connected and engaged, Damon and ‘Downsizing’ are not. Kristen Wiig is made out to be a villain of the piece after ditching her husband but you never really know enough about her to care. Christoph Waltz is an actor I do like watching but recently he’s appeared in some bad films and that’s no exception here, he’s still going with the shtick he’s been pigeonholed into but with extra arrogance. The MVP of the whole movie is Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran who seems to be the only one with emotion and shows some connection to the film she’s acting in unlike everyone else.

It’s the sheer disappointment of what could have been, that lets down this movie massively. The premise has some good moments to start but becomes lost very quickly. I haven’t felt so unenthusiastic or uninterested for quite a while.

5/10

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

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Heating up the awards season with a tale of anger and conflict, this drama/thriller is one that greatly explores a small scale of America as a whole and the inner motivations of the people within that world.

Driven by the unsolved case of her murdered daughter; Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to rent 3 almost dilapidated billboards, in a call for possible action against the police she sees as unhelpful in their progress. Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is targeted by Hayes and tries to make her realise the death of Angela is a tricky one, but a racist and hot headed officer, by the name of Dixon (Sam Rockwell) plus Mildred’s determined anger may make this whole saga come to blows.

I’ve always loved Martin McDonagh’s work; from his play-writing of dark and fairy tale tinged ‘The Pillowman’ to one of my favourite films…ever, ‘In Bruges’. This new release from the Irish/British writer is just as dark and clever as I expected. The black comedy involved is as sharp as a knife and works expertly against the numerous moments of well placed burning drama. It’s a film that balances tones well and keeps a strong willed, unrelenting female figure at it’s forefront in a quest for justice. This couldn’t be more suitable to the real world at the moment and McDonagh ensures this brutal track of wanting answers is funny and a shocking sucker punch to the gut as well.

There has been a recent surge in people hating on the film, for it’s attitude towards racism and the character that takes a swift turn to good. Though I can see that side of the argument because this shift in Dixon’s behaviour, just because a letter sees them act differently, is a somewhat unexpected and rushed change to make, it doesn’t completely endorse the views they have/or had. They’re still a dumb and corrupt individual just hoping to come good and this whole movie is about hope; the hope of a mother finding justice.

Aside from the midst of backlash it’s facing, there comes some serious weight from the consequences of this red backed billboards which definitely polarise the Ebbing community. The great quality of this film is that is a spiralling descent into violence and anger because of how far a parent will go to seek answers and get some kind of closure. The drive is fiery and thrilling and each and every character has a scene that conjures up either a respite of laughter or a dramatic kick of unexpected tensions.

Frances McDormand is sensational in this and is deserving of every award going. It’s not just the angry vengeance that she effortlessly sells. There is a necessary and believable anguish, pain and emotive guilt to her portrayal of the character that really makes Mildred a three dimensional force to be reckoned with. Woody Harrelson is great in this, handing a sheriff with a bullseye on his head more than just a working cop, he’s a family man, sympathetic to Mildred and his narrative takes some nice and surprising turns. Sam Rockwell is finally getting recognition after a heap of turns in previous films that have almost always been the best quality. The writing of his character may be the most obvious weakness I faced but if anyone can sell it then it’s the talents of Rockwell. Peter Dinklage and Samara Weaving are two almost backseat passengers but they bring a brilliant buzz of humour to the film.

I’d been eagerly awaiting to see ‘Three Billboards…’ for a long while now and I can confidently say I’m not disappointed by it. There may be a slight niggle of a character journey but it doesn’t take away from how dark and beautiful this movie is. McDormand and the film are a thrilling delight.

8/10

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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Game, set and match! This film is an ace of a biopic and extremely relevant with the current climate of the female/male divide. High flying 60s/70s tennis star Billie Jean King and women as a gender themselves rise up and show the grass should be as green on their side of the court as the men.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a world class tennis talent but she and every other racket wielding sportswoman are subjected to taunts, digs and extremely less pay than the apparently better and more exciting male tennis players. King says no more, to important Lawn Tennis Association figure Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and starts her own tournament. This bold journey leads her agreeing to a match with former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the first Battle of the Sexes match.

The story telling is incredibly engaging and like with tennis we go back and forth between the two sides and see how this very, very different people live their lives and train for the big sporting event. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ writer Simon Beaufoy pens an assured telling of an important topic for empowerment and liberation. There are still great drop shots of comedy to be found along the way but he ensures the serious message of gender equality is at the forefront.

The way this film is delivered really works well in making you get excited for the big face off. I wasn’t expecting it to show much of any tennis playing of the match itself and thought it’d adapt Bobby and Billie’s stories leading up to this point but gladly there’s a lot of edge of the seat playing to be seen, you really see the styles of the two players come to a head and as someone who loves watching tennis, the last sequence is exhilarating, tense and beautiful all at the same time.

There is a set of interesting points with this sports story and a lot of them boil down to loves and politics. It’s not just a dramedy but a smartly told narrative that keeps a genuine interest in its subjects. On the softer side there is a forbidden fruit notion of love that ticks away, this secreted passion further adds to the dramatic relevance of the characters and their pre-match behaviours. One is a incessant gambling man-child and the other is a laser-focused achiever struggling with a new feeling in her life.

Stone serves up a careful and emotive performance as the courageous and capable Billie Jean King. You see past her period glasses and into her eyes and get an idea of the amazing and forward thinking woman she was and I’m sure still is. Carell smashes the movie in a role that continues his run of serious acting performances. It may not carry that chill of ‘Foxcatcher’ or the brains from ‘The Big Short’ but he utilises on his comedic background whilst still giving Bobby Riggs a worrying quality of chauvinistic pig-pigheadedness. Andrea Riseborough is a glowing presence in the life of King and she plays this more confident person with a free spirit in a believable and effortless manner.

It’s not a total grand slam of a bio drama as it hits the net with a couple of expected sporting drama cliches or predictable story moments, but these are mere tiny notes in a film that greatly balances pleasing humour and interesting gender politics with a leading duo of actors that are fantastic.

7.5/10

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

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I was relatively lukewarm but fine with the first film back in…oh, only last year. Yes, the moms are back and this time they’re cashing in early for the Christmas season in a so called comedy that is definitely not warranted and does more of the same with extra dirty jokes and baubles thrown in for good measure.

The nightmare of Christmas is around the corner and so comes the stress of being a perfect mother for Amy (Mila Kunis) who tries to make everything perfect for her children and keep this time of year under wraps and not go crazy. Alas her perfectionist mum is arriving and Ruth (Christine Baranski) won’t let her daughters’ wishes satisfy her. Amy can only break free with fellow stressed mums Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) who also happen to be reunited with their maternal guardians in time for December 25th.

Just the convenience alone of all three mums coming home for Christmas was crazy stupid to suit the screenplay but topping off this with this trio also attending midnight mass because the script demands some redemption and forgiveness is insanely stupid. That is one issue with the writing, another huge one is the characters just aren’t likable; aside from maybe Hank, all of them feel like crudely drawn stereotypes and you can’t connect to them because they steal and lie. The only way the writers feel like they’re redeeming these factors is by constantly going on about how they’re tired mums who deserve fun. First time around though, there’s an interesting social aspect in them going against the grain of being so called super mums but this time they’re just kicking it against their own mums without any joy or clever storytelling.

Calling this a comedy film doesn’t feel right either as I didn’t laugh or even smile once throughout this boring ordeal. There’s aspects like having a character called Isis, nothing clever about it, just heck, call her that because it’s funny to have a name linked to terror. A young child also swears very near the beginning not to be cute or apt to her behaviour or anything intelligent, just to laugh at the fact they have a child swearing. This movie literally revels in ‘dicking around’ as they say umpteen times, with excessive swearing, sexual dirtiness and mums sticking it to the man/their mums in more of that 2016 slow mo chaos where they go to town on booze and profanity.

It’s a film with more of the same and further enforces my reasoning that this film really never needed to be thrust upon us. It being churned out so quickly really makes it clear this a desperate cash grab for the jolly holiday period. This and ‘Daddy’s Home’ swiping at the Christmas box office season is ridiculous as they’re both frankly unnecessary sequels. I guess I’ll try and be nice somewhere and say that the dodgeball scene at a trampoline park is quite good and squares off characters nicely but aside from this the film does nothing to dispel predictability and tedium.

Mila Kunis is more of the same as the capable yet quite plain lead, who has her mother to contend with. I was kind to Kathryn Hahn with my previous review but this time her rudeness and blindly drunken sexual naughtiness is dreary and too much. Kristen Bell is a likable presence again as the slightly kooky Kiki with an even kookier parent. Cheryl Hines is weirdly deranged and they wring this idea dry constantly leaving only her customised Kiki pyjamas as an amusing quality. It’s Christine Baranski who walks away as the almost saving grace, her brilliant sharp tongue and no nonsense rich granny attitude is perfectly played.

In all honesty, I zoned out of this film more than once. It’s a needless and unfunny sequel wrapped up in tinsel and it left me icy cold instead of festively fuzzy.

3.5/10