Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is. simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

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Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – My Feral Heart (Jane Gull, 2016)

Last night 36 cinemas in the U.K. played host to screenings of My Feral Heart as part of World Down Syndrome Day. The many 100s in attendance were treated to a moving portrayal of coping with loss and the difficulties of abrupt changes in circumstances that people with Down syndrome are sometimes forced to cope with.

Star Steven Brandon plays Luke, a young man with Down syndrome who is coming to terms with the death of his mother. Moved to a nearby care home, he must forge new relationships with the carer at the home Eve (Shana Swash) and a man working nearby on community service called Pete (Will Rastal). After leaving the home to explore the surrounding areas he is comes across a girl in need of help, a task that brings Luke new purpose.

The performance by the lead actor Brandon is extremely moving. This is a complex role that he clearly gave a lot of emotion to. He is a heartbroken son living alongside people he doesn’t feel any connection towards and also feeling robbed of his independence. 

There’s a clear comradery between the three lead characters and it’s in these scenes you feel the charm of the humour. It feels natural when Pete laughs at Luke for thinking babies “come from China”, before a big infectious smile appears on Luke’s face. Without this chemistry the film could have fallen down, but praise must also go to director Jane Gull for cultivating and capturing this on film.

The performances are complimented by a wonderfully-orchestrated soundtrack by Barrington Pheloung, who has been crafting high quality film and television scores for almost thirty years.

The ultimate ideal is that people will view this film and change their underlying feelings about Down syndrome, either through the effect of the story or due to the brilliant performance from Brandon. The rhetoric surrounding World Down Syndrome Day is that those living with the condition don’t have special needs, but human needs. They don’t have to be treated completely differently to anyone else. Though the message is precisely this in My Feral Heart, the film itself serves as evidence enough of a great acting achievement by a bright young actor with Down syndrome.

It is heartwarming and completely moving, and it’s something that really deserves to be seen.

Film review – Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2017)

If you’ve seen Toni Erdmann, you may be forgiven for leaving the cinema mightily confused. Not because the film was overly complicated, but perhaps because you’d watched a film drastically wide of what you’d been expecting. Marketed primarily as a German-Austrian slapstick comedy (schpalschtick? I’m coining it now), what audience have instead been challenged to watch is an affecting tragic drama that deals with a man’s disjointed relationship with his career-focussed daughter and tries to cultivate some kind of relationship amidst the complicated web of activity she has built around herself.

Toni Erdmann is the alter ego name of Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), the father of Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a business consultant in Bucharest, but returns to her hometown following the death of the family dog. When Winfried realises she is unduly stressed and taking a fake phone call in the back garden, he decides to follow her back to Bucharest and spy on her to find out more about her life.

 

One of the main polarising aspects of the film is the relationship between the father and daughter. Depending on how you interpret it, you might see him as a terrible father who is undermining his daughter’s progress in her career. She is trying her hardest to be taken seriously in her role in the midst of some terrible sexism in her workplace, but he is treating her whole life as a joke and she is right to distance herself due to the feeling of resentment over his actions. One cringe-worthy encounter involves an important business meeting with an important contact Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) at an evening drinks social, whereby she makes a serious suggestion on a business level, but instead is asked by the man to take his wife shopping, whilst Ines’s father – as the ridiculous titular Toni – is invited for more drinks. A frustrating scene that portrays the subtleties of sexism at their absolute worst.

However, if you side with the father and assume that he is a totally devoted father – or at least one regretting not being devoted in the past – then you can read it that he has seen his daughter struggling, depressed and stressed, and wants to help her realise that there is more to life than being stressed at work. When he sees his daughter being pushed around by her workmates and not being treated equally, then he realises he needs to step in and show her what she can’t see – that she’s wasting her time.

 

After contemplating the film for over a week, I’m still not entirely sure where I sit on this, though I’m leaning towards the latter.

There are moments of real comedy in the film, but they are often laced with tragedy serving to undercut any notion that this is a comedy. There is a memorable scene when she organises a birthday brunch, which is only organised because it offers an opportunity for work colleagues to socialise. However, when she gets stuck in her dress whilst getting ready, she decides to simply take the dress off and answer the door with no clothes on. Initially humorous, the ripples of laughter disintegrated as the audience in my screening realised that we were witnessing a woman having a breakdown.

It’s a truly intelligent film that refuses to provide any definitive interpretations on the situation, instead allowing the viewers to make up their own mind. Thought-provoking and well-executed – exactly what a film should be.

Film review – T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Trainspotting was one of the quintessential moments of British film in the 1990s, helping to define a generation and giving them a voice on the silver screen. It catapulted director Danny Boyle and his cast to international fame, with lead Ewan McGregor reaping the lion’s share of the benefits as it launched his path to stardom.

I was probably just slightly too young to enjoy the original on its initial release, catching it on VHS in around 1999 at the age of 15. But the effects were still strong amongst people my age – the music soundtracked our lives as much as the likes of Morning Glory and Parklife did. The imagery in the advertising campaign was arresting and inescapable. Finally watching the film I was blown away that something so popular was set in a Britain far more familiar than every other British film that seemed readily available at the time, all of which seemed to star Hugh Grant. 

The boys are back in town

When the sequel was announced, there was a certain amount of trepidation from fans of the original. It seemed unlikely that the success of the original could ever be matched. It wouldn’t have the same effect on society. The soundtrack surely wouldn’t be as good. Plus there’s the twenty years of nostalgia to contend with. So how does it stand up?The answer is, thankfully, very well indeed.

The plot centres around Renton (McGregor) returning to Edinburgh for the first time in twenty years, catching up with his old friends Spud (Ewen Bremner), Rent Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlysle). Time has passed and this has inevitably changed the four men, but it has also drastically changed the world around them too. It also hasn’t been long enough for two of the group to forgive Renton for what happened at the end of the first film.

Reimagining their friendship so far down the line when there hasn’t really been a particular push recently for a sequel to be made proves that this film has been made for all the right reasons. Danny Boyle and his team knew there was a story to be told here and it is told brilliantly.

As in the original, music plays a crucial role. There are reimaginings of three of the biggest hits associated with the original: Lust for Life, Born Slippy and Perfect Day. Elsewhere, more modern artists offer more up-to-date contributions from the likes of Young Fathers and Wolf Alice.

It won’t have the same cultural impact as the original, and few films have. It is, however, extremely relevant for those who lived through the first instalment, having an uncanny ability to reflect what has happened to almost everyone in society in the past two decades.

It is undoubtedly one of the best cinematic sequels we’ll see this decade.

Why La La Land probably won’t clean up at this year’s Academy Awards

The critical enthusiasm for La La Land has been matched, for good reason, by the audience’s outpouring of affection. The music is now firmly stuck in the heads of everyone who has seen it, with many of its devotees wondering what the odds are for it to clean up at the Oscars.

Here I’ll explain why this probably won’t be the case.

What’s the current record?

Three films have won 11 Oscars: Ben Hur, (1959), Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Titanic managed these with 14 nominations, whilst the final Lord of the Rings film achieved a clean sweep, winning 11 out of 11 awards. Elsewhere, All About Eve (1950) received 14 nominations, though it only won 6 of these.

For La La Land to get close to this, it’s therefore going to need 11 or more nominations, and win almost all of them.

Which awards does it have a good chance of winning?

La La Land has a great chance at winning in many or all of the categories available to it: Best Picture; Best Director; Leading Actor and Actress; Original Song; Original Score; Best Writing (Original Screenplay) will certainly be places it will be nominated, so assuming the swell of enthusiasm continues it will probably do well in what are considered to be the major categories.

So where will it fall down?

There are 24 categories that the Academy awards prizes in, but that doesn’t mean that a film can win in 24 categories. There are two awards for animated films, two for documentary films, one for a film in a foreign language and one for a live action short film. So that’s six prizes that can’t be won.

There are two prizes for Best Writing: one is for an original screenplay and one is for an adapted screenplay. Since La La Land is an original script, it is excluded from the adapted screenplay category. That’s another one down.

Perhaps the most glaringly-obvious problem it faces is that there are only two characters in the film: Mia and Sebastian. So whilst they will probably get the nominations for leading actress and actor, there isn’t anyone of note in the film that could be classed as a supporting actor or actress. The closest would be John Legend’s portrayal of Keith, the frontman for the jazz band Seb joins halfway through the story, followed by Rosemarie DeWitt as Laura (Sebastian’s sister). It seems unlikely to pick up nods in these categories. Two more down.

Finally, a few categories have already been announced and La La Land doesn’t feature in any of them. The long-lists Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Visual Effects excluded La La Land from their lists. Two more down.

So where does that leave it?

It only has access to 13 awards and will need a nomination in each of the categories if it is going to break records. It’s not unrealistic for it to achieve this, but it will require nods in the likes of Best Production Design (awarded for interior design for the sets) and Best Costume Design to get there.

However, with a weak field to compete against, it is quite possible that it will do. this anyway! Here’s hoping!!

Film review – American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

British-born Andrea Arnold may have created a cutting piece of social commentary in ‘American Honey’, delivered with a refreshingly natural voice, but with a running time of 163 minutes it does feel like there was scope to say the same thing in about half the time.

It follows troubled 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane), a free-spirited girl looking after two young children for ambiguous purposes (they’re not her children and the connection she has to them is never clearly stated). A chance encounter with Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads to an opportunity with a random group of youngsters selling magazines from town-to-town, led by Krystal (Riley Keough), and she opts to run away from an inevitable life of  domestic imprisonment and abuse.

One of the principal achievements by Andrea Arnold is creating a truly realistic world for the cast to inhabit. She was involved in the principal photography and had essentially completed the entire road trip before they started filming, finding locations to realise her vision. 

The cast was mainly taken from the streets with no experience, supplemented by more familiar faces. With no history of being in USA at that time of her life (she was busy doing children’s TV show No. 73 with Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan) she has done wonders with a reflection of an oft-ignored part of society.

The cast are also tremendous and natural in front of the camera, usually feeling like they are simply being captured rather than working from a script. Indeed, many scenes were shot without a script so there’s an element of reality about that statement. The result is that each segment feels absolutely real, partially due to the fact that nothing is rushed. Unfortunately the lack of focus belies this, with pacing being the true victim.

Lane and LeBeouf have real chemistry

Arguably, LeBeouf does need to remind everyone that he is a pretty decent actor, especially after that dreadful performance in Nymohomaniac. He does a solid job here, with his real-life fame adding to the gravitas afforded to him by his fellow cast members (which reflects his character’s position in the group’s pecking order). He has always been a good actor, though the rest of the world may never realise it.

The plaudits must go to Sasha Lane, a complete newcomer to acting who was picked up on a beach in Florida whilst on spring break. She’s a complete natural on camera. When she gets angry, you believe her. When she feels lust towards Jake, you believe her. Star is a girl being given the chance to be her own woman for the first time, still having to demean herself due to her vulnerability, still dogged by feelings of maternal responsibility to the children that, in all likelihood, weren’t hers to feel responsible about. A truly thought-provoking performance.

The ambiguous ending, however, cemented the feeling that the story was overlong. To take so long to build up to a suggestion that Star was probably going to leave the group just seemed like a disappointment when it had taken so long to get there.

A great story has been sabotaged here by a lack of ruthlessness in the edit. Perhaps it’s an indication that Arnold had grown too close to the material and couldn’t bear to cut any of it out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – plenty of directors don’t care enough of their final product – but it was a lot to ask of this audience member.