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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Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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After missing out upon it’s initial release, awards hopeful ‘Call Me by Your Name’ returned to a cinema near me and though I liked the sun-drenched aesthetic, music and performances, I didn’t find myself captivated by the plot in any way.

In 1983, an American grad student called Oliver (Armie Hammer), spends 6 weeks of his summer at the Perlman residence to help with his paperwork. Seventeen year old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) begins seeing this outside figure as a nuisance but it moves forward to secretive hang outs and a blossoming first love for him to ride the highs and lows of.

Luca Guadagnino’s directive stamp on this is pretty stunning, The Great Beauty of an undisclosed Italian location is as ripe as a peach for beautiful moments. Sayombhu Mudkeeprom works with the director to create shots that are filled with yellow rays and highlight the glory of both Italy and this summer love. Closing Guadagnino’s ‘Desire’ trilogy, this is definitely a glorious and interesting melancholic yarn being spun; it’s without a doubt a much more engaging movie than ‘A Bigger Splash’, but again it’s a release that suffers with length.

I must admit I did in fact get quite bored during the late stages of the second half. In the first part, the setting, characters and music all get introduced very well but as the private romance begins, the film started waning and stretched almost into boredom for me, where I was just waiting for the obvious moment when the two would go their separate ways.

The main reason I feel like the later scenes distanced me, is because I never ever bought into their relationship. It’s meant to be this beautiful spark of mutual attraction but I didn’t once believe they loved each other. It felt like Elio was a kid infatuated and Oliver was taking on a summer fling; which makes the consequent second half and their sad parting…well not very sad at all. The story didn’t resonate with me in the way I expected it would, considering all the astounding reviews it’s been collecting recently. I in no way disliked the film, I just started tiring by the end and wouldn’t recommend it outright.

I did thoroughly enjoy the score, almost wrapping me up into the lush scenery of the film. A piano heavy backdrop of music works well in both providing a nice lullaby tone and mirroring the pianist skills of Elio himself. Sufjan Stevens gifts the movie three songs and Mystery of Love; which is in contention for an Academy Award, is like some calm water gently soaking over you as you listen. The song perfectly compliments the look and tone of the film.

Chalamet is a wonderful presence, at times presenting himself wrapped round Oliver, like the curved statues spoken of as displaying desire. He brings this quiet teen intellect to the character but you can see there’s a nervous unknowing to how his narrative plays out, which is quite fascinating to watch. Hammer possesses this goofy charm throughout the picture, a serene confidence to his character and the eventual relationship. It’s definitely one of his finer turns and I’m sold on his dance moves which are care free and delightful. Michael Stuhlbarg is in this and it’s a wonder, no, a crying shame that he hasn’t been up for a major award yet, because he most often is the best quality in a production, and in this he provides good touches of humour, believable dad advice and a calming aspect to run with the general calmness of the story.

‘Call Me by Your Name’ is an assured sweet film about the ride of first love and it’s summer tinged backdrop is a wonderful look to bolster the vivid exploration of Elio’s crush. I just wasn’t as taken by the story itself that’s all.

7/10

The Shape of Water (2018)

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The masterful and visionary Guillermo del Toro is back; with one of this seasons huge awards contenders, and frankly it isn’t too difficult to see why people have fallen for it. There’s a beautiful twisted charm throughout what can only be described as an odd Hollywood fairy-tale.

A mute janitor by the name of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), ends up cleaning a secretive room in a government facility. In here she discovers and learns more about this amphibian asset (Doug Jones) who she quickly connects to and falls for. It’s soon clear that this water-dwelling creature is in the midst of Cold War tactics and Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is laser-focused on doing no good to this being.

I never expected to see a film featuring an upright fish man and a non-speaking lead to incorporate elements of such love, engaging humour and aspects of classy glitz a la ‘The Artist’ and ‘La La Land’. Director del Toro has very nearly struck a fascinating gold mine with this film, one that certainly feels like his greatest storytelling achievement since ‘Pans Labyrinth’. I say very nearly because perhaps down to my own over-hyping of this feature, I found the movie to not always keep me immersed and the obscure romance/will they, won’t they element isn’t anything majorly refreshing, even if the romantic partner is green and scaly.

Aside from those points, I found myself enjoying almost the entire run. The cast of characters are believably written and wonderfully acted. There is a healthy mix of fairly absurd comedy to be found considering the subject of this film and what people say is cleverly scripted to elicit humour. The swelling score helps this film feel like a piece of stunning movie-making from a bygone era of classic Hollywood, this can further be realised with the production design of Elisa’s neighbours’ apartment and the numerous visuals of black and white reels on screens. As you might expect with a del Toro picture, there are moments of wincing gore that definitely do their part to make you squeam.

What I think is the best quality in this Cold War set romantic fantasy, is the enchanting rapture of the world we’re presented with; the people within it, the places and the central heart shaped pairing, all mesh together to create inspiring choreography of adoration for movie monsters and Hollywood of old. I don’t know about everyone because this film has been picking up some negative jabs , but for me at least, without any real doubt I can say I was won over by the stylish spin on a love story…and by the glorious amount of key lime pie!

Hawkins gives such a lovely presence throughout, practically saying nothing she manages to tell the story through a spellbinding emotive performance. There’s almost something other-worldly about her and I think she’s the perfect fit for this role. Richard Jenkins is a gem of an actor and character within this movie; he brings great levity, kindness and a loneliness too. Shannon is always someone I enjoy watching and here he has perfect menace in his eyes and a hell bent drive to his narrative, that pretty much only Shannon could muster. Jones is del Toro’s go to guy for making beasts come to life and though it may be no epic Pale Man creation, this amphibian figure splashes with an enamouring touch. Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer are incredible supporting players who have their own moments to shine; in both aiding Elisa’s plot and within their own great scenes.
It may not be the winningly dazzling film I hoped it would be, but it’s certainly a film with visual flair, a film I’d re-watch and a film with classical romance flipped upside down and submerged in the wondrous waters of Guillermo del Toro’s mind.
7.5/10

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

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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This was a film that likely would have passed be my; I hadn’t seen a trailer or knew anything about this, but I’d call it a hidden gem because it’s just wonderfully made harking to the Hollywood of old.

After falling ill before a stage performance, former silver screen actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) wishes to stay at the house of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and his kin. Turner and Grahame had been in a relationship for the last two years or so and we see their up and down romance throughout the movie.

Based on a memoir from Peter Turner himself, this romantically themed drama is extremely engaging. Firstly I must comment on the utterly believable relationship between Bening and Bell. This old/young romance never feels wrong, strange or make believe, there’s a genuine affection and attraction built between the actors that helps the film along. The film delves back and forth between her at the house in 1981 and her meeting Turner in 1979, the transitions to and from these moments in time are quite clever and give it an almost one take theatrical vibe as if moving scenes forward on a stage.

For my sins, I had no clue that the glamorous performer in question was actually based on a real actress from the heyday of Hollywood. This only made the story more impacting as I came to realise the true account running through the narrative. I liked to think I know Oscars and actors but I obviously need to brush up on the glitz of 40’s/50’s stardom. It’s this pizzazz and studio based ideal of talent and fitting into a mould to sell pictures that gives Gloria real depth and vulnerability as you see her clinging on to youth and wanting to be loved.

There are some aspects in the film that are predictable and you know what someone may say or what characters will do and a sequence you see from one perspective gets re-shown from the other side with a healthy dose of melodramatic strings rising and clear emphasis on trying to make you emotional, almost cheesy I could say. There’s clear green screen in use for places like New York and beaches of California but they’re apt in a way for this film about acting, gifting the whole feature a movie look as if we’re seeing their memories as glances on a film reel.

Annette Bening better get recognised come awards season, if she’s not up for an Oscar then a Golden Globe at least because she is sublime in this. The mannerisms and the way she talks are an almost sweetly yet seductive Marilyn Monroe quality and she carries confidence and false confidence in equal measure. She completely buries herself into the role and I bought her turn as Grahame hook line and sinker. Jamie Bell gives Turner great care and love, you buy into this man that isn’t much of anything, a success or triumph but a funny, interesting and kind guy who cares deeply for this enigmatic presence in his life. He plays opposite Bening with convincing ease and they’re both fantastic together. It’s great seeing Bell reunite with Julie Walters who dons a Scouse accent rather well and brings that expected and needed heart and comedic touch. I also want to comment on the much too short but almost scene-stealing turn from Frances Barber who plays Gloria’s sister. The icy stares and sharp tongue were brilliant.

This is a film that doesn’t seem to acknowledge the intelligence of its audience with predictable moments and repeated scenes driving home points we’d already gathered but it’s a special movie with a fragile soul beautifully illustrated by the exceptional performances from Bening and Bell.

7/10

Passengers (2016)

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‘There’s a reason they woke up early’, so the tagline for this movie goes, as it turns out it’s not a very interesting or even great one. The only great thing the film has going for it is the fun chemistry between its leads and a superbly glossy style for the ship where the action takes place.

Avalon; a spaceship, is travelling to Homestead II, a planet for people to live on. The course will take 90 years but suddenly passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from his hibernation pod and finds himself alone. Preston’s only company is a barman android named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Later down the line, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is awoken and with Jim they try to solve the ship’s mystery whilst also falling for each other.

For the positives of this movie, the spaceship has a cool and incredibly sleek design. It’s clear the makers of the film have taken time to think about how certain rooms and items should appear. Avalon is a rotating craft and on the inside, modern technology is advanced with rooms aboard boasting entertainment to rival cruise liners. The connection between Jim and Aurora grows nicely and is believable consistently as they spend more time together. Gravity falls, machines fail and threat does come into play for moments which is good to see but that doesn’t outweigh the rubbish plot.

It’s a shame the story increases in it’s ridiculousness because for the portions of the movie where Pratt is by himself the movie is strong. It of course never reaches that amazing solitary ‘Moon’ vibe of Rockwell/Jones but it gets close and has a neat cold vibe about it as we see him struggle. Sadly as the sci-fi dwindles and the romance takes over it feels like ‘Titanic’ in space, also plot points that create dramatic changes are executed in the most expositional way.

Not only these moments annoyed me in how the writers got the story to move forwards but there were no twists which I expected and the actual thing that caused early rising from hibernation was nowhere near a revelation as it could…should have been. That could have been a clever and possibly dark idea played with but they never tread down that path, even ‘Wall-E’ is a darker comment on society than this is.

Chris Pratt is engaging and manages to submerge his usual Pratt shtick as the cabin-fever sets in. Jennifer Lawrence is a glowing presence as she steps into the story and breaks down with suitable emotion upon realising why she’s there. Together as a couple of love struck space travellers they work well and a spark is clear. Michael Sheen plays a near emotionless character to convincing standards with ever present glossy eyes and almost creepy smile adding to his role.

This film gets more dumb as it continues and makes you forget the nice intense moments that it started with. Aside from a captivating pairing of actors this is a creepily played out love story that doesn’t know how to stop.

5.5/10

 

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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There’s no denying that this romantically toned period drama looks effortlessly beautiful. The location greatly encapsulates both the sheer wonder of an island but the brute reality it provides also. Aside from the look and performances in this film, I found portions of the story wavering and slow.

WW1 soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) gets himself a temporary position as a lighthouse keeper and soon gets the permanent role. Away from Janus island he falls for Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who shares this feeling of affection and togetherness. Staying together on Janus as husband and wife they think life is bliss but soon it fractures and a boat washes up offering them a risky opportunity at happiness.

Now knowing that this movie was directed by Derek Cianfrance, who was at the wheel of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’, it’s clear to see the parallels in style. Both films look and flow very well but seem to lose interest by the last third, this 2016 release may not lose interest as possibilities of crime heat up but the way it’s directed doesn’t build up any gripping connection which is a shame, because the way we fall into the romance of Tom and Isabel before this is done so well.

Cianfrance also wrote the screenplay and again, it’s the last third where everything becomes so tinged with niceties that it almost threatens to bore you. More often than not, this film goes along trying to make you cry or at least engage in a sad manner to what we’re seeing, sometimes it works thanks to the performances but the majority of it starts souring because it feels like it’s shooting for the Academy’s attention.

Michael Fassbender delicately places the almost silent and war-torn Tom, clearly racked with past sins and now performing nicely, this new guilt and sense of right and wrong. Alicia Vikander powers through with gusto and raw emotion when it’s called for but has a chance for a softer smiley side near the beginning. The two of them together and enthralling and their real life connection obviously shines through. Rachel Weisz is great in this too, arriving late but making her mark as Hannah, a woman ridden with grief and loss.

The emotion it strives for isn’t as wrenching as it should be and it all feels like a tame melodrama by the end but a trio of fantastic acting, Desplat’s score and the cinematography help retain it’s cinematic romance.

6/10