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.

img_4598

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.

Advertisements

Film review – Beyond the Clouds (Majid Majidi, 2017)

Majid Majidi’s latest film ‘Beyond The Clouds’ received its world premiere on Friday night at the pop-up Embankment Garden Cinema, specially created for the BFI London Film Festival. The director was in attendance to introduce this most brilliant and vibrant of films, alongside cast members Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan and several members of the crew.

The Mumbai-set tale centres around Aamir (Khatter, in his cinematic debut), a 19-year-old who is making a living of kinds by dealing drugs around the slums and docklands of the city. After a drugs bust leads to a chase with the police, Aamir winds up at the doorstep of his sister Tara (Mohanan). She attempts to protect her brother, but she ends up in prison herself. He must quickly learn to take responsibility to save his sister and their relationship.

In its opening shot, striking in its simplicity, we see the overarching message of the film. We see a busy but cleanly neat overpass, cars flying by. An unknown boy stands at the side of the road. A car pulls up and hands him a package. As we follow this mystery person as the camera pans down, the short one-shot focuses on our protagonist as he takes a package through into the underbelly of the divided city. It is an underbelly littered with street-bound families and forgotten people.

Whilst this separation of classes is made clear, it is a film, first and foremost, about the brother-sister relationship between our two main characters. It is about how they have let their close bond slip, leaving them with nothing but emotional wounds and lost memories of better times before the death of their parents.

Given that getting this chemistry right was such an important piece of the filmmaking puzzle, it seems like a risk that director Majidi cast two relatively unknown actors in the lead roles. Speaking in the Q&A after the film, director Majidi said: “The presence of superstars is crucial for most Indian films, and perhaps particularly in India with 2000 films produced every year. The audience is really keen to see their favourite actors on the screen. Despite the fact that there are so many superstars in India I asked the producers to let me cast people who’d never acted in front of a camera before. I was lucky they agreed to let me do that.”

The actors may not be superstars now but they are clearly destined for greatness, providing two absolutely astonishing debuts to form the backbone to the plot. Mohanan has enjoyed previous successes in Malayalami films, though this is Khatter’s debut. “The casting process was extremely long and we’re very lucky that both main actors come from acting families,” he added.

Lead actress Mohanan was forthcoming in her surprise at the fast turnaround from casting to appearing on set. “I came on set one week before we started filming. The process started and it was incredible… we had so many creative highs.” She is clearly visibly excited to have been given an opportunity by a truly well-respected director, though it didn’t affect her on set. “I don’t think it really hit me until the shoot was over. I had no time to take it in! It was incredible and the journey was so beautiful. So many of my scenes were so intense. I’d never done that before and I didn’t think i could do that.”

Actor Khatter was equally positive about the process, praising the method Majidi used to get the most out of the cast. “He didn’t want to give us time to develop the character. He’d rather we did it on set.”

The results are astonishing.

A. R. Rahman provides the score. Rahman previously worked with Majidi on the film ‘The Prophet Mohammad: The Messenger of God’. In the two years it took to complete that soundtrack, they grew to be close collaborators. The score for ‘Beyond The Clouds’ ebbs and flows, allowing the picture to breathe around it. It is never more apparent than the opening scene, bringing to life an introductory montage that explains fully the character Aamir and illuminating the dark corners of Mumbai that the visuals reveal.

There are several key scenes that use silhouettes, which prove to be a recurring theme and are used to portray contrasting emotional situations. Early in the film Aamir witnessed the trafficking of women through a silhouetted screen, bringing him suspicion. Later on there’s a powerful scene involving an arresting sexual assault on a woman that plays out behind hanging sheets. It’s a simple framing device that runs throughout the film and each shot is captured perfectly by director Majidi working alongside cinematographer Anil Mehta.

Beyond the Clouds is a wonderful film. At 58, Majidi is still taking huge risks that are paying off. The result is a raw and believable story that has plenty of heart and a powerful message. Simply a must see.

Film review – Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017)

On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).

And it’s really rather good.

battleofthesexesscreenshot

King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) pose for the cameras.

The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.

Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.

King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.

Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.

This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.

It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.