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 – Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2017)

Manchester By The Sea is by no stretch of the imagination a happy film. That it was advertised in some channels as a comedy is beyond me. It’s a bleak look into one man’s struggles with his past during a particularly depressing period of his life, and I’m not sure that there was a particularly happy ending to it either. But it is absolutely deserving of its plaudits, and the results are both effecting and memorable.

WARNING! The next paragraph spoils the first twenty minutes or so of the plot, but only really covers what is in the trailer. If you don’t want to have anything ruined then just stop reading and simply watch a film that deserves your time.

The story, in a nutshell, is about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a single man in a dead-end handyman job with no semblance of positivity for his or anyone else’s life. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies young due to a heart condition, forcing him to return home to Manchester, Massachusetts to sort out the funeral arrangements and look after his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). However, he soon finds out that he has been named the sole legal guardian for Patrick, forcing him to take on unwanted responsibilities and confront his past relationship with former wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Affleck’s performance is well-balanced and measured. It’s a role that doesn’t call for any big movements, and the beauty of it is in the understated reactions to the huge changes going on in his life. He is almost dead to life itself, so his reaction to his brother’s death or his new found responsibilities are equally lacking in emotion. A worse actor would have ruined the film, yet he brings the whole story to life. Kenneth Lonergan has a lot to thank him for.

The music is brilliantly effective. Lesley Barr has worked wonders with her fantastic score, her first in five years since 2011’s The Moth Diaries. There’s a great interview with her over at The Muse, in an article by Bobby Finger, which is well worth reading. It’s a shame it was deemed ineligible available for an Academy Award nomination.

There has been a bubble of negativity towards Casey Affleck that surrounds his personal life. He has been accused of physical abuse against two women working alongside him on the film I’m Still Here – Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White. Affleck denied any wrongdoing but settled both claims out of court in 2010. 

Many sections of the press clearly think there’s a lot of truth in the stories. There seems to be a media-led unspoken rule about how much time people in the film industry must live in penance until the world forgives them again. Mel Gibson has seemingly served his time now following his controversies with his ex, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva, but it seems we are all permitted to enjoy Hacksaw Ridge, even though The Beaver was a brilliantly-bizarre turn that came at the wrong time of his career and has been largely ignored as a result.

Should we rise above the noise and embrace Casey Affleck? Well, the Academy certainly thinks so, as do the Golden Globes and BAFTA, all three of whom awarded him a Best Actor prize.

In isolation, there is no doubt that Affleck has brought to life a wonderful story and put in one of the best turns of his career. If you can live with and forget about the settled accusations, you’ll be rewarded.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, Two Days, One Night, stars Marion Cotillard in what on the face of it seems quite an unlikely situation: a woman is voted out of her job by her colleagues as a result of a vote between her colleagues who choose between keeping her in employment or receiving their annual bonus. Whilst it felt far-fetched when I read the synopsis, the way it is delivered makes it not just believable but heart-breaking.

Whilst the whole story centres around Sandra’s struggles as she reacts to the news of the decision, we are treated to an expert display of serial short story writing. Sandra (Cotillard) has from 5pm on Friday night until 9am on Monday morning to visit, in person, each of her 16 work colleagues and convince them to vote in her favour when the ballot is repeated on Monday morning. Given the minimal screen time they have to offer their reasoning (the whole film is just 95 minutes in length) each character is wonderfully deep. This ensures that this one-woman tour-de-force doesn’t begin and end with the main star.

The shooting technique adds to the realism. Most scenes are completed in a single shot, which gives the effect of feeling like you’re a bystander allowed to eavesdrop on the most personal and revealing of conversations. We see extreme stubbornness, tears of guilt and logical reasoning as each character paints the picture of how they came to their decision and – more importantly – whether or not they will change it.

It is a film that sets itself up to spark debate amongst the viewer. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. It is too heavily laden with working-class socio-realism for that. But does it achieve what it sets out to do? Probably, yes.

Two Days, One Night is out now at selected cinemas.

American Hustle (David O’Russell, 2014)

Director David O’Russell has had a sudden upsurge in fortune. With his last film – Silver Linings Playbook – he finally realised the promise hinted at with his earlier attempts at cinematic quirky humour. It was both critically lauded and a commercial triumph. It was a must-see film. If you hadn’t seen it you wanted to, and once you’d seen it once you probably wanted to see it again. O’Russell’s stock had never been higher.

It was important, then, that he chose his next film wisely. I’d say American Hustle was exactly that – a wise choice. It’s a film set in 1970s New Jersey, and this allowed a lot of fun to be had with costuming and recreating an authentic world in which the characters can play. To bring the characters to life, he enlisted three key actors from last year’s triumph: Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Added to this he also brought Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. That is a formidable lead cast if ever you saw one.

The music is spot on. Mixing a superb score from Danny Elfman with some choice cuts from the era (think Elton John, America, Chicago), it all blends together to further enhance the authentic experience.

Yet, after 138 minutes of buying in to the story, I left the cinema feeling a little short changed. There’s enough humour to keep us smiling, some great playoffs between Adams and Lawrence who are at each other’s throats throughout, and the mild twists and turns in the plot are entertaining if not thrilling. I admired the solid performances from the all-star cast, none of whom underperformed but at the same time didn’t shine. The film had the feeling of playing it safe, and I thought there could have been more to it. The final payoff was predictable and in turn disappointing.

The main problem for me was that none of the characters were likeable. Adams and Bale are both untrustworthy con artists, Cooper is an FBI career man who wants a quick rise to the top, Lawrence is a degenerate waster who’s slow on the uptake, De Niro is a mafia overlord. Renner’s Mayor Polito is the only one I felt sympathy for, getting mixed up with the wrong people for the right reasons, but he’s not really a central character. I didn’t have anyone I felt the urge to back and for me that’s a flaw in the scriptwriting. I understand that the aim of the film may have been to portray the fact that nobody in this circle is likeable, but it just wasn’t carried off successfully. With so much time to develop the characters and such an amazing array of talent on offer, it could have been so much more.

American Hustle is out now in UK cinemas.

Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2014)

Screened in competition for Best British Film at the BFI London Film Festival 2013, Starred Up was a film I knew very little about but had high expectations for, and it didn’t disappoint.

We are introduced to the lead character Eric Love, portrayed by Jack O’Connell (Skins, This is England), who has been “starred up” from a young offenders’ institution to a jail for adults for excessive violence. As the story develops, we go on a personal journey with him as he struggles to deal with the fact he is no longer the king pin in his new home.

Helping him on his journey is prison therapist Oliver, played brilliantly by Rupert Friend (Homeland). He builds up a close relationship with both him and several fellow inmates also going through the therapy sessions. It is in these sessions that we begin to learn a different side to our protagonist, one that he hides from everyone else he comes into contact with in the prison.

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The twist in the tale lies in the fact Eric’s father is also incarcerated in the same jail, and this is where his struggle lies. He is finally able to spend time with his father, but cannot cope with the fact that in spite of all the larger inmates and all the guards, the one person who has control over him is the one that he blames for being in prison in the first place. It is this dynamic that really allows O’Connell to flex his acting muscles, and show he can play much more than the jack-the-lad tough guy. As an actor, he has a serious amount of talent on offer and at such a young age must feel like the world is his to take on.

Much of the praise for the successes the film enjoys must go to screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser won the LFF Best British Newcomer award for this film, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an authentic and intelligent script that draws on his own personal experiences and it ensures that what could have been a run-of-the-mill prison drama becomes much more than that – a study of an individual’s struggle against authority and personal responsibility.

Starred Up is released in UK cinemas on 21st March 2014.

See a clip of the film here or the trailer here.<br />
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The 7:39 (John Alexander, 2014)

Sometimes you watch a show on TV with no prior knowledge of the content, with no preconception of what is coming. Usually when you do this, you’re left disappointed and quickly switch over or find yourself checking your phone at decreasing intervals. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a gem, a diamond in the rough. So it was with the gripping BBC two-part romantic drama The 7:39.

Starring David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) and Sheradin Smith (Legally Blonde), with supporting roles from Sean Maguire (Eastenders) and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), the story tells the chance development of an affair between Carl (Morrissey) and Sally (Smith), who catch the same eponymous commuter train. Both unknowingly in a rut in their life at home and at work, they quickly find an unlikely spark between each other and grow closer through the increasingly precious time they spend together en route to work.

Carl has a lot more to lose. He is married with two teenage children and has an exceptionally supportive wife (Colman), but yet he is the driving course behind the forbidden relationship. Sally is engaged to her overprotective fiancé Ryan – brilliantly portrayed by Maguire – who is hellbent on arranging the perfect wedding and seemingly attempting to smother every aspect of Sally’s life, though only out of love and devotion.

It is a sign of excellent writing by David Nicholls (One Day, Starter For 10), matched by perfect performances by the highly talented cast, that we quickly find ourselves rooting for Carl and Sally. Seeing them play out this despicable action, knowing they’re on a collision course to devastate everything they know and love, I was surprised that when the chance arose I was on the edge of my seat willing them on to go for it. It is a deed we hope we would never be subjected to by a loved on – or even worse commit ourselves – yet the reasoning is portrayed fully without ever needing to be spelled out. Of course, the subject matter has divided audiences, but that is the sign of a powerful work of art.

It is wonderful that there is such high quality drama being produced in the UK and that there is an outlet for the all-British cast to excel on prime-time television. It could easily have had a successful cinematic release and wouldn’t have looked out of place on the big screen. Hopefully it is the first of many more of its ilk.

The 7:39 is available to watch for free on iPlayer and Sky On Demand until 14th January 2014 and is released on DVD on 10th February 2014.

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