“Lady Bird” Review

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Oh, the joys of being an Australian film fan. Getting to watch from afar as a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is released in American cinemas back in November, gathers up critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and other awards, all while patiently waiting until mid-Feb for it to get wide release down under. It’s a relief to finally see it and realise that not only is Lady Bird not let down by the advance hype, but is an emotionally authentic film worth waiting for.

Set over the last year of high school for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), Gerwig’s screenplay tackles many familiar topics of the coming-of-age drama. There’s the high and lows of high school relationships, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, arguments with parents who just don’t get it, the craving to have cooler friends, the inevitable high school prom, and throughout it all the constant desire to make your own name for yourself (literally in Lady Bird’s case). Films like Lady Bird remind us that the reason so many movies are able to revisit these moments is because even if we all experience these milestones differently, we can’t help but experience them. Despite having an entirely different background than Lady Bird herself I found myself revisiting my own memories of performing with the school theatre department, developing wildly passionate crushes on my classmates, and particularly all the times my careless actions had hurt my parents. Lady Bird’s complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is at the heart of the film, with the two women too similar in the strength of their personalities to ever have a civil conversation for longer than five minutes. It’s a volatile and deeply passionate relationship that forms one of the most accurate depictions of the mother-daughter dynamic since Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge.

Saoirse Ronan has been a phenomenon on screen since her breakthrough role in Atonement and she once again demonstrates a knack to lose herself in rounded complex characters. In lesser hands Lady Bird could have been a pretentious and unlikable protagonist, almost a parody of youth self-indulgence and righteousness, but Ronan and Gerwig present her best and worst qualities equally. Like all teenagers she’s insecure and vulnerable, with every emotion amplified and threatening to burst out. Through Metcalf’s performance I got the sense that Marion McPherson was once the same, but is now too proud to show how much she’s struggling to keep the family afloat financially after Lady Bird’s father loses his job. The arguments between the two are personal and devastating, but there’s a deep love underneath it all that makes Lady Bird emotional without being depressing. Tracy Letts’ understated performance as Larry McPherson helps, as he unobtrusively tries to bridge the relationship between the women in his life.

Located primarily within Sacramento in 2002, Lady Bird makes a powerful point towards the importance of setting within films. So much time is spent exploring the various ‘uncultured’ aspects of the town that frustrate Lady Bird that when we see brief scenes of New York towards the end it feels almost like a different country. Gerwig enhances this with minor details that help make Lady Bird’s world feel real and lived-in, such as when she steals and eats the communion wafers from her catholic school while gossiping with her best friend, or hangs out with the popular kids in the middle of a gravelled parking lot. Special mention must be made of April Napier’s costume design, as Lady Bird mixes various old and worn pieces of clothing purchased from thrift stores. It both expresses Lady Bird’s style and individuality while emphasising the financial strain burdening Marion, brilliantly evoking the personalities and motivations of both the film’s main characters.

Greta Gerwig demonstrated her ability to write believable people struggling to find their direction in life with her screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, and with Lady Bird marking her first solo directing role she proves herself able to bring to life her stories as well as she writes them. It’s rare to find creators with voices as honest as hers, and it makes a film like Lady Bird feel like a gift I’m increasingly grateful to receive.

5 stars.

“Phantom Thread” Review

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The joy in watching an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis in a film like Phantom Thread is that you get to watch a master at his craft on two different levels – the character of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock as he meticulously constructs extravagant works of fashion, and Day-Lewis himself in reportedly his final acting role. The story is a not-uncommon one of a perfectionist struggling to balance his relationship with his muse and his commitment to his work, but through the performance of Day-Lewis and the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson Phantom Thread becomes a film of sensuous beauty, tenderness, and fragility with touches of underlying darkness.

Reynolds Woodcock is a man of routine and order. He likes to work on his designs at breakfast, in silence, and does not like surprises of any kind. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), works extensively with him and seems to be the only one who can understand his insistent quirks and demands. Woodcock has a habit of becoming infatuated with various beautiful women, using them as his muses, before disregarding them in favour of his work. Much of the story of Phantom Thread is told through the perspective of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who begins a relationship with Woodcock and is determined to care for him and be a part of his life no matter what it takes. The chemistry between Alma and Woodcock forms the foundation that Phantom Thread is built upon, and the two actors give masterful performances in their roles. I found the dialogue in some scenes was almost incidental, particularly the early flirtatious moments between the two, as the looks they give one another and the way they hold their bodies is all that’s needed to demonstrate the complex feelings and changing moods of each moment. In a heated argument between the two later on each character ends up repeating the same lines two or three times as they struggle to get to the crux of their grievances at one another, but each new delivery brings new meanings and additional impact. Often positioned between the two is Cyril, bringing a cool sense of control over her temperamental brother and the romantically inclined Alma.

There have been plenty of films about the overbearing male genius, but while most actors use it as an excuse to dominate each scene Day-Lewis gives Woodcock tremendous gentleness and fragility. Anderson demonstrates how Reynolds’ passion for his work torments himself as much as those around him, becoming distraught when he feels his work isn’t good enough, and his complaints and demands to Cyril make him resemble a pouting child at times. When he does lash out at those around him, particularly Alma, he rarely raises his voice and simply expresses his displeasure with brutally matter-of-fact lines, some of which are cruelly humorous despite their cutting nature thanks to Anderson’s wonderful script. Woodcock’s attention to detail is represented through Phantom Thread’s often amplified soundscape, with simple noises like the ruffle of various fabrics or the scape of a bread knife against toast brought up to demonstrate the intensity of his focus.

Paul Thomas Anderson has long demonstrated his skill at creating timeless films, ones that honour the past while remaining modern in execution, and he’s done so again by making an intricate, sensitive masterpiece. Mark Bridge’s costume design allows each dress to feel like a new character, as the camera fawns over the care placed into each stitch and the love poured into each design, a love that is occasionally not respected by the models wearing them. Jonny Greenwood’s score is prevalent throughout almost every scene and mixes classical and romantic tones to give a story centred on the world of fashion an operatic quality by the end. For Phantom Thread often surprised me, taking a seemingly simple story about genius, romance, and fashion and bringing it to a much darker place without losing any of its elegance or grace.

5 stars.

“The Shape of Water” Review

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Guillermo del Toro loves monsters, and he wants you to love them too. Much of his filmography has been a testament to this love, with Chronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim all containing beautifully detailed and complex monstrous creatures, but no film has embodied this passion as much as The Shape of Water – a love story between a monster and a mute woman.

Sally Hawkins is exquisite as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor for a mysterious government facility who is very much stuck in her own daily routine. Her desire for companionship alternates between watching old musicals with her closeted gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and listening to her workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as she complains about her husband. It’s not until she discovers the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones), a fish-like creature being kept for study in the laboratory, that she finds a creature that seems to truly understand her. The remarkable thing about The Shape of Water is how it makes a love story between two silent characters so expressive – the connection between them was so evident through the performers’ faces and body language that it almost never registers that the characters never share a word. Hawkins brings fragility to Elisa without ever weakening her, creating the impression of a woman who has been hurt so badly that she’s yet to discover her own strength. Eliza’s frustration at being unable to properly express herself to those around her is evident in nearly every scene she shares with another human, even those who speak sign language, and makes her relationship with the Amphibious Man all the more impactful as they transcend verbal communication.

Doug Jones and Guillermo del Toro have created a number of iconic monstrous characters together, such as the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien from Hellboy, and the Amphibious Man is possibly their best one yet. It’s a beautiful, intricate costume that turns into something remarkably emotive and powerful through Jones’ movements. There’s a constant air of mystery around him, a creature that is alternatingly magical and dangerous. Del Toro’s script, co-written with Vanessa Taylor, plays off a typical ‘Beauty and the Beast’ structure in a manner that feels familiar at times yet constantly manages to surprise. Only a director as unique as Del Toro could deliver a film that merges stylistic influence from Cold War inspired B movies with Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and deliver a fantasy romance prestige picture such as this. Under a lesser director it could have seemed a tonal mess, but Del Toro’s graceful and passionate direction brings out the best qualities from a myriad of genres. The Shape of Water comes across as an ode to the unappreciated most of all – the main cast consists of a mute woman, a gay man, a black woman, and a foreign creature. Each character has a moment where they are attacked or feared for being who they are, yet Elisa’s message that “If we do nothing, neither are we” speaks to a refusal to have their voices or actions silenced.

There’s something magical about The Shape of Water from the very first scene, as the camera slowly moves through the flooded sets while Alexandre Desplat’s ethereal theme plays, and that spell stays unbroken until the credits finish rolling. Del Toro has always had the peculiar gift to make all of his films feel like passion projects, whether they’re intimate Spanish ghost stories like The Devil’s Backbone or spectacle-driven blockbusters like Pacific Rim, but The Shape of Water is constructed with such tender care and beauty that it’s impossible to not feel the love Del Toro’s put in – and impossible not to reciprocate.

5 stars.

“The Florida Project” Review

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The adults of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project are struggling; living in poverty and trying to provide for their families however they can. The children of The Florida Project are oblivious to this, and find delight in everything they do. By capturing these two alternate perspectives on the same situation Baker has made something truly special – a film that encapsulates both the innocence of childhood and the realisation that parents are people, a realisation that changes how you perceive certain memories of your youth.

For much of The Florida Project we see the world through the eyes of six-year-old Moonee as she roams, unsupervised, around the Orlando streets and the halls of the decrepit motel she lives in with her single mother, Halley. Halley is recently unemployed and regularly self-destructive, and while her love for her daughter is clear she seems unconcerned with how her own actions influence Moonee’s own behaviour. The responsibility of watching over Moonee instead usually falls to the manager of the ‘Magic Kingdom’ motel they’re staying in, Bobby, who also reluctantly looks after Halley however he can. Only an actor like Willem Dafoe could portray both Bobby’s gruff exterior and sympathetic heart so believably, depicting a man who can’t seem to stop himself from protecting those under his care even when they frequently disappoint him. Newcomers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite bring to their performances as Moonee and Halley a naturalism that’s rare to find on screen. Moonee’s glee at the most mundane of activities feels as if Prince herself was simply having fun making this film, giving The Florida Project lightness and joy despite the bleak circumstances of the setting. Vinaite is astonishing as Halley, demonstrating an acquired toughness that prevents her from acknowledging any weakness or fault even as she loses control of her life, lashing out at those around her because she cannot accept responsibility for herself. Put together, the three characters form a sort of Id, Ego, and Superego – with Bobby’s maturity contrasting Moonee’s childish impulsivity while Halley struggles to play the parent. What The Florida Project lacks in terms of a traditional story it more than makes up for through the richness of the characters and the manner in which it explores its setting, using the grimy and lurid tourist traps just outside of Disney World to critique the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

The Florida Project is a film of contrasts – contrasting the rich with the poor, childhood and adulthood, and maturity with immaturity. Multiple scenes contain double meanings, depicted as playful or innocuous from Moonee’s perspective while as an audience we realise the true nature of what is occurring. One remarkable scene involves Bobby leading a lecherous predator away from where the local children are playing, forcibly removing the man from the premises while the kids remain oblivious. Other moments seem harmless at first and are only revealed to be masking darker meanings later on in the film, as the innocence suggested by The Florida Project’s child protagonist falls away as the film goes on to reveal a sharply focused social commentary.

Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch usually leave the influence of Disney and other mega corporations unstated, preferring to focus on the immediate concerns of their characters, but their impact on the lives of those living a stone’s throw from Disney World resort is unmistakable. Yet Baker doesn’t just simply criticise Disney’s over-commercialisation and how it can swallow up those in the lower class. The Florida Project also demonstrates how, in the eyes of a child, there’s no greater representation of imagination and freedom than Disney World, even if the magic fades as we reach adulthood.

5 stars.

 

“Call Me By Your Name” Review

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“If you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.”

Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story as much as it’s a coming-out story, exploring the excitement, the anxiety, the heartbreak, and the joy of a 17-year-old boy’s first love as he forms a relationship with an older man. Director Luca Guadagnino has constructed an extraordinarily tactile film – I could feel the warmth of the Italian sun, the coolness of the water, and every slight brush of fingers against skin as the characters reach for stolen touches from each other. More than that, Guadagnino had me feeling the emotions felt by the characters as if they were my own, so that by the end of the film I felt as if I’d been through as life-changing and unforgettable experience as Elio.

Luca Guadagnino’s previous film, A Bigger Splash, was less concerned with narrative and more a film about being taken away by the European setting and complex psychology of the characters. While based on James Ivory’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is similarly focused on in-the-moment experiences and emotions, with the Northern Italy setting almost as vital a character to the film as the two leads. Emerging young actor Timothée Chalamet is a practical wunderkind for how much he brings to the role of Elio – playing complex musical pieces on piano and guitar, speaking English, French, and Italian, and delivering a performance that develops from repressed and confused to emotionally raw as he learns to acknowledge hidden parts of himself. Elio is the son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), spending his time over the summer reading, transcribing music, and awkwardly flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). When his father brings over an American graduate student, Oliver, to stay with them over the holidays, Elio and Oliver form a hesitant relationship that evolves into something much deeper. While Armie Hammer had his break-through role in 2010’s The Social Network as both of the Winklevoss twins, he’s been struggling to find a role that suits him since – with some colossal misfires along the way (The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E marking two franchises he was attached to that are unlikely to get any further off the ground). Call Me By Your Name finally allows him to deliver on the potential displayed in Social Network. As Oliver he’s charming, confident, a little arrogant, and immensely attractive. The romance between Oliver and the much younger inexperienced Elio had the potential to be uncomfortable, but Hammer brings to it a nervous confliction and innocent tenderness that, combined with the unrestrained energy between the two when they’re together, makes the affair feel genuine and supportive for both.

Call Me By Your Name is a slow, measured film, but the pace is never boring or lagging. The novel is set in the 1980s but there’s an almost timeless, classical sense to the picture – the Italian setting looks as if it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years while the themes of love, desire, and loss are so universal they could take place at any point. Even Guadagnino’s direction echoes elements of the Italian New Wave while feeling fresh and alive. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is exceptionally bright and vivid, with the sun giving the characters and setting a warm golden shine, and at times he even allows the camera to drift out of focus as if to force the audience to get lost in the sensation and overall meaning of a scene rather than being caught up in the finer details. The largely piano-lead soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens acts as an auditory link into Elio’s mind, expressing his confinement, his desires, and his freedom as the story develops, as well as original songs by Stevens with such poetic lyrics that they almost fulfil the role of the missing narrator from the book. James Ivory’s screenplay is just as expressive and honest, with a monologue from Elio’s father towards the end that’s one of the finest summations of the value for love and heartbreak that I’ve ever seen, delivered with compassion and eloquence by Stuhlbarg.

This is a film easy to get absorbed by, a stunning and richly romantic experience that swept me away completely. When it finished I found the return to reality almost cruel, but Call Me By Your Name is a work of art that manages to leave you with memories and lessons of life and love that stay with you far beyond the doors of the cinema.

5 stars.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Review

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Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not an easy film to watch. The performances are often monotone and expressionless. The soundtrack is aggressively loud. Vital plot elements are left unexplained. The screenplay directly confronts themes such as filicide, youth sexuality, torture, and religious sacrifice.

It’s possibly the best film of the year.

Colin Farrell reunites with Lanthimos after 2015’s The Lobster and delivers another terrifically unconventional performance as Steven Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has a strangely close relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan) – the teenage son of a patient of Murphy’s who died during surgery. The relationship turns sinister as Martin starts to integrate himself into Steven’s family and daily life, despite the doctor’s attempts to pull away. When Steven’s son, Bob (Sunny Sulijic), becomes inexplicably paralysed, Martin gives him a choice – kill a member of his own family to atone for killing Martin’s father during surgery, or watch them all die from the same illness now plaguing Bob.

While The Lobster brought Lanthimos to the attention of English-speaking audiences due to its original ideas and distinctive directorial style, Sacred Deer will surely cement him as one of the most notable auteurs of his generation. Influence from directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke can be felt at varying moments throughout the film, but it never feels like Lanthimos is simply copying their styles. Rather, he has learnt from them to create something original and daring. Every aspect of the filmmaking craft is utilised to make the viewing experience as unsettling as possible, even before Martin delivers his ominous threat. Thimios Bakatakis’s cinematography favours the wide lens to make his characters shrink against dull, pale backdrops, and the largely classical soundtrack ranges from religious choirs to screeching violins. Keoghan delivers a boldly unflattering performance as the sociopathic yet strangely innocent Martin, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast as Murphy’s elegant and cold wife who will do whatever necessary to understand what is happening to her and her family.

All these elements are constructed to make intelligent characters seem utterly powerless against incomprehensible circumstances, inspired by classic Greek tragedies of mortals struggling to deal with unforgiving and unknowable Gods.

Some viewers will hate Killing of a Sacred Deer. Films as thoughtful and uncompromising as this are rare and should be celebrated, but are often met with objections from those who find them to be of poor taste or unclear. Yet those who won’t turn away will be rewarded with a true piece of art, and filmmaking of the highest calibre.

5 stars.