Monday, December 4, 2017

DEL TORO WHIPS WHIMSY AND VIOLENCE INTO HIS MODERN FABLE “THE SHAPE OF WATER”


Guillermo del Toro is one of our most distinctive filmmakers. One of the things that makes him so is his blend of whimsy and violence onscreen, juxtaposing childlike innocence with the viciousness of the adult world. He’s a modern fable maker, the cinematic version of a Grimm’s fairy tale. He did it in his 2006 masterpiece PAN’S LABYRINTH, telling the tale of a little girl who immerses herself in a fantasy world to deflect the coming fascism of 1944 Spain. Here, Del Toro treads in similar territory as a child-woman creates a romance with a sea monster against the frosty backdrop of the Cold War in 1962. The name of the film is THE SHAPE OF WAHTER and it’s almost as successful as PAN’S LABYRINTH. It certainly is one of the year’s most provocative, must-see films.

It’s so provocative because Del Toro doesn’t take the POV of a child for this one, instead choosing a protagonist who may be childlike, but she is a fully mature woman in every way.  Despite the youthful idealism and wide-eyed sense of wonder that Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) exhibits, she is a complex adult. She’s handicapped, in her 40’s, and full of piss and vinegar. Elisa may not speak, but she lives out loud and always has a lot to say. One of the ways she is shown expressing herself in this film is carnally. Within 10 minutes of the beginning of the story, she is shown drawing a bath and masturbating to climax. This is part of Elisa’s morning ritual. She may not have all the senses, but she is a sensualist 100 percent.

What makes this all the more provocative is that Elisa is not a typical glamorous movie lead. She's mousy and yet she still enjoys her sexuality. Elisa has many other gifts beyond such self-awareness as that. She speaks in sign language, and is a great listener, as well as an observer of all that crosses her path. This is a woman who takes time to note beauty in ways big and small, enjoying a humble world as if it's a kingdom of riches. She delights in seeing a fellow bus passenger carrying his big birthday cake home, and loves the lights of the city she gazes upon during each commute. Elisa loves her best friend too, a closeted commercial artist named Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. It's also refreshing to see a gay man portrayed onscreen who’s not some young stud, but a senior in the autumn of his years. These two make up their own sort of ‘lonely hearts club’, sharing conversations (he can sign!), takeout, and even a few dance steps they've learned from watching a musical on TV together.


It’s a small world, but a good one for Elisa, albeit a bit unfulfilled. Her work doesn’t help much. She’s a nighttime janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore in the early 60’s, and every night is merely a series of mops and waste baskets. Her sassy fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a joy to her, but there are few others around at that hour to connect with. 

Then one day, a new “asset” is brought into the facility for safekeeping, courtesy of by-the-book government prick Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). That changes Elisa’s life forever. The asset is an amphibian man creature, snatched out of the rivers of South America. This tall and lean Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) is sort of a kinder, gentler version of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Elisa discovers him in a water containment tank and they soon develop a profound relationship. At first, it's based on her pity as he is wounded regularly by Strickland hoping to control the alien with an electric cattle prod. But soon, Elisa and the creature will bond over so much more. They both feel exceptionally alien in normal society and that makes them soulmates. 

Elisa shares her hardboiled eggs with him, as well as the big band records she listens to on her turn table while scrubbing the joint. Here again, Del Toro juxtaposes the childlike right up against adult tastes. Both characters love simple, child favorites like eggs, yet they swoon equally to the sophisticated jazzy trumpet solos in a 16-piece orchestra. And as they get closer, the Amphibian Man makes Elisa swoon in ways that Glenn Miller cannot. 


A burgeoning sexual attraction starts to become apparent between them and it turns THE SHAPE OF WATER definitively adult. Even as Elisa works to free the beast from his bondage, her chastity is as much a part of her motivation as her charity. She wants to save this creature, but also, save him for herself.

One of the great things about THE SHAPE OF WATER is how it continually confounds the audience with such complex themes. Not only does it “go there”, but it also turns a number of fable movie clichés on their ear along the way. For starters, this movie is very violent as evidenced by Strickland's electric prodding of the creature as well as his bullying of the employees at the facility. Then, the big breakout scene comes halfway through the film, not as an inevitable climax which is were it would be placed in most action films. Why, even the sneaky spy at the institute, the Russian-backed Hoffsteldter (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a guy who turns good way before you'd expect to see such a turn. He even helps Elisa and her love escape.  

Del Toro has, ahem, bigger fish to fry here, so that is why he's not interested in dragging out his narrative. He wants to get to the core of the film, an expanded love story in the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST vein, although he's very explicit. A number of scenes showcase a nude Hawkins and the creature exploring each other's bodies while swishing around in the tub.There’s even a great, outlandish love scene where Elisa fills the room with water to give them more room to play. It's sexy and audacious as hell. 

Their love story becomes infectious. An inspired Giles manages to work up the courage to explore his own sexuality asking out the male soda jerk he has a crush on. Zelda gets in touch with her feminism as she asserts her voice at home and puts her obstinate husband in his place. And even Strickland is indirectly affected as Elisa's relationship with the creature forces him to unwillingly evaluate his masculinity as well as his marriage to a long-suffering wife.  


And all of this works, not only because Del Toro commits to earnestly telling it, but because Hawkins gives such a courageous and nuanced performance. Hers is easily one of year’s best, and she was just awarded Best Actress by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association over the weekend. Hawkins magnificently embodies every part of Elisa, from her confidence to her sexuality to her fears. And she does it all without uttering a word except for lip-synching a tune in a fantasy song-and-dance sequence. For my money, the two most sensual female performances on film this year exist without any of the typical female lead clichés. Instead, both Elisa and Diana Prince from WONDER WOMAN are so attractive in their stories because of their more humanistic qualities: earnestness, being guileless, and acting with an open heart. Who wouldn’t fall in love with either of them - man, woman or beast?

There are many other wonderful attributes to call out here too. Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score is lush and lovely, the production design could easily take this year’s Oscar. Jenkins too should be a factor in the race for Best Supporting Actor. However, Del Toro does do a few things unfortunately that mar his piece in small but significant ways. Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Zelda, as she always is, but the veteran character actress has played that too-smart-for-the-room service role many times before. Similar typecasting with Michale Shannon as the villain makes that choice a bit on-the-nose too. Shannon can do these kinds of roles in his sleep, and his performance here resembles the character he played in HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE entirely too much.


The Russian story also seems to gild Del Toro's lily a bit obviously as well. Do both super powers need to be such obvious  monstrosities? Of course, Del Toro is illustrating that the trues monsters are in the government, not water tubs or tanks. And shame on him for bringing a pet onscreen only to egregiously kill it off in a grotesque horror film way. The film is already a bit stomach-churning in its portrayal of violence, so why the need to show a beheaded cat on top of it all? 

THE SHAPE OF WATER manages to overcome such flaws though and stand as a uniquely wonderful achievement. Del Toro is one of our most distinct voices in cinema today, a filmmaker willing to butt fable up against realism, defend a world he also decries, and present the USA populace as people capable of both idealism and fascism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER may have trouble finding its audience, what with its complex juxtapositions, but it should be seen as a involving and important period piece that, once again, comments brilliantly on our modern world. It strongly condemns those that oppress like Strickland, using the government to belittle and dehumanize humanity. God knows such sins have come back in this country bigly these past few years and Del Toro makes no bones about his despising of such government bullying. His film here is wonderfully entertaining, yes, but it also targets oppressors as pointedly as that electric cattle prod. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“THE DISASTER ARTIST” PAYS TRIBUTE TO A FILM THAT TRULY DOESN’T DESERVE IT


I once judged at a high school speech contest where an entry in the playacting category was a group of teens performing the “Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise” sketch from a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SHOW done back in 1975. For those who’ve seen the skit, you’ll remember that John Belushi did a hilarious imitation of William Shatner refusing to give up the ship’s bridge even though an NBC executive (played by Elliot Gould) told him the show was cancelled. As crew members disassembled the set, Belushi’s Shatner refused to drop character and leave the premises. So, what was to be judged of the high schoolers' interpretation of that skit? It wasn’t really acting, or a theatrical piece, of course. It was nothing more than a riff on John Belushi’s imitation of William Shatner playing the character of Captain Kirk, a performance four generations removed.

For me, THE DISASTER ARTIST felt all too similar.

In the new film that just opened, written by Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber, and directed by and starring James Franco, the story feels less like a genuine one with real people, and more like a satirical riff on THE ROOM, the god-awful cult movie it’s inspired by. What it does best is recreate the most egregious scenes from THE ROOM, with its actors doing spot-on imitations of the awful performances by those cast in the original 2003 film. What it doesn't succeed nearly enough at is helping the viewer understand who these people really were and why they were participating in making such a disastrous film. It should have have been way more insightful into dissecting the terrible script and giving us a behind-the-scenes critique. Instead, it mostly plays as a really good riff on the original material. 

So what was it exactly that made THE ROOM so awful, enabling it to gain its cult status as a movie “so bad it’s good”? In a word, everything. Budding filmmaker Tommy Wiseau wrote a god-awful screenplay, directed it himself in the most amateurish way, with coarse and cheap production values, starred in it himself, and filled his supporting cast with actors just as terrible as he was. 

His script was supposed to be a tragic love triangle between Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). But it was shallow and vacuous, never creating a single likable character or making us care a hoot about anyone in this oddly unromantic tale. To add insult to injury, Wiseau's meandering script lost track of a number of secondary plot threads along the way, and his dialogue range false in every single scene.

To make matters worse, Wiseau directed with the élan of a sledgehammer. His lighting and production values were cheap and unconvincing, attempting to recreate the San Francisco Bay area with fuzzy green screen effects. The love scenes, trying to be artsy-fartsy, were mostly the latter. And Wiseau's attempt at a tragic ending showcased Johnny committing suicide right after rubbing his crotch with Lisa's nightgown. Yep, Johnny went from masturbation to murder in a matter of seconds.

A monosyllabic mumbler of broken English, Wiseau’s vibe didn't help his film either. He came off as aging Eurotrash (and still does), and he came of as vain in comical ways. Easily in his late 40's, Wiseau wore his mane long, dyed jet-black, and his wardrobe included dated 80’s cargo pants. Worst of all, he had a giggling tic that rendered him infantile in scene after scene. Johnny came off as a lounge lizard by way of Rasputin, yet Wiseau thought audiences would buy his character as a wildly successful businessman who was adored by everyone he knows.  
  
THE DISASTER ARTIST seems content mostly to laugh at Wiseau's inanity, rather than illuminate it or what drove him. At its best, and funniest, this film works spectacularly at recreating the worst scenes in THE ROOM in every aspect, from the exact lighting to set design. But ultimately, THE DISASTER ARTIST fails to answer why anyone would sign on to work with a loser like Wiseau, film such a horrible script, and stick around during all of his juvenile and misogynist antics on set. 

It's also a film that truly requires the audience seeing THE ROOM beforehand to understand so much of what they're satirizing. If you haven't seen the source material, too much of THE DISASTER ARTIST will be lost on you. So, who is the film really for then? To truly appreciate it, you probably have to be one of the midnight movie mavens, or someone from the critical community who has grown to love its legend and trashiness.  

But couldn't the film have delved more into what made Wiseau tick to make the film more appealing to newbies? In this film, the character of Wiseau displays absolutely no talent whatsoever and the film fails to truly answer what made him think he even belonged in the show business. And his character is presented inconsistently too. He's a boob who doesn't know about basic filmmaking techniques, yet he's a student of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE who's able to talk about Bryan Cranston's work on the series? Who is this guy, both so naive and so savvy? 

And when Wiseau is shown in example after example of being a asshat bullying everyone on set, why doesn't anyone set him straight or simply walk? He's over schedule and over-budget, after all. And yet, even with all that, everyone gladly attends the premiere of the debacle that they went through with him. Really? And those that do attend seem to believe the film will actually be good. Only halfway through its screening do they realize that it's any utter piece of crap and thus, they start laughing derisively. Didn't any of these more experienced veterans of Tinsel Town know that the script of THE ROOM doomed it from the start? It begs far too many questions.  

James Franco does a decent imitation of Wiseau, but his portrayal  fails to fill in the many blanks. The accomplished actor has admitted during press junket interviews that they conspicuously chose to leave Wiseau a mystery, not really wanting to dig into his origins, where his money came from to finance the film, or why he thought to go into show biz. The film makes a half-assed suggestion that it was Wiseau’s need to be loved, but that seems like surface psychology at best. (Who doesn’t want to be loved?) And by failing to answer such key questions, the film misses out on the opportunity to make this movie more meaningful. As it stands, it's a reasonably fun riff, but at the end of the day, it doesn't have much to say. 

The film could have, and probably should have, been a scathing satire about Hollywood delusion, something in the vein of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Blake Edward’s S.O.B. (1981), or Christopher Guest’s THE BIG PICTURE (1985). Instead, what it really wants to be is a sweet, buddy comedy about Wiseau and Sestero. And in doing so, the film gives into maudlin schmaltz. Sestero helped write the book THE DISASTER ARTIST with author Tom Bissell a decade after the debacle, and both the book and this adaptation of it let him off the hook far too easily. 

Was Sestero truly that insightful about all the ineptitude while the film was being made? THE DISASTER ARTIST movie wants us to believe so. He’s constantly dropping his jaw, or rolling his eyes at all of Wiseau’s craziness, but why work with him then? Why be his friend? And why go along with a shit storm that started with such a crap script? 

The film ends up truly being more about Sestero than Wiseau, and it's his character that has the arc. It paints too sweet a portrait of him, perhaps to garner his cooperation, or to make a likable hero for the piece, but it's hard to buy that Sestero was a smart and talented guy sucked into Wiseau's orbit. And the concentration on the smarmy bromance between the two veers the focus away from lampooning Tinsel Town to its fullest.

Dave Franco tries his best to make Sestero a real person, and talented folks like Seth Rogan, Alison Brie, and Jackie Weaver valiantly attempt to breathe life into their one-note roles, but their characters all seem too knowing and judgmental about Wiseau’s eccentricities here. Would they all really be rolling their eyes at every mistake Wiseau made while filming? If they're so good, why agree to film such a bad script? If you've seen THE ROOM, you know that Wiseau cast actors who barely rose to the level of soap opera day players, yet we’re supposed to believe that all of them here are so savvy to know that Wiseau was an utterly incompetent filmmaker. Doubtful. 

What’s even worse is how the film panders to the hipper-than-thou crowd, those who love THE ROOM because it is so awful. Movie buffs and film critics alike revel in THE ROOM because it's cool to dig trash in all its irony. I think the critical community has actually gone way overboard in embracing this film, even awarding James Franco and its screenplay some tony prizes this past week. They've done so because they take pride in being in on the joke. Sure, THE DISASTER ARTIST is at times a hoot and a half vamping on a bad film, but it's no LADY BIRD or THE BIG SICK, two of the truly phenomenal comedies this year.

You know what is actually the funniest thing about all of this? It's the fact that Wiseau now goes to all the midnight screenings of THE ROOM to hear people laugh and deride what he made as serious art. Equally amusing is that he sits alongside Franco for the press junkets and talk show appearances and smiles while the movie star openly mocks him. Is Wiseau a clown laughing on the outside but crying on the inside now? Or is he just one laughing all the way to the bank?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"LOVING VINCENT" PAINTS A COMPLEX PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, HIS LIFE AND HIS DEATH


I’m a huge fan of Pixar but it’s almost ridiculous how much their CGI 'look' has come to influence that of practically every animated movie that comes out each year. One has to search far and wide to find animation that doesn’t have that gleaming computer-generated look or overtly cartoony style that the wizards at Pixar have perfected. Where is the stop motion photography, the mixed media, or the hand-drawn cells? Well, one animated contender this year forges a different path and it just might give Pixar a run for the animation Oscar come March. It’s LOVING VINCENT, a new film that just opened nationwide, and it is a glorious portrait of the life and death of impressionistic painter Vincent van Gogh.

And what an impression this film makes. For my money, it is one of the most enthralling entertainments of 2017. It not only is a splendid visual feast, animated with 65,000 hand-painted cells done in the style of Van Gogh’s painterly brush strokes, but it’s also an intensely moving biopic about one of history's most important geniuses. It even serves as a compelling mystery as the narrative here delves into unanswered questions surrounding his suicide. 
Written and directed by Dorota Kobeila and Hugh Welchman, their achievement stands as both gorgeous and haunting. Sure it's novel to have each and every frame rendered in the style of the artist’s brush strokes, but it's even more clever to imbue every moment of the movie with the same sense of melancholy found on Van Gogh's canvases. It’s as if Van Gogh himself composed each scene, and indeed, many of the film's shots are taken directly from his paintings and portraits. The famous interiors, lush fields, and Paris cityscapes - they're are all here, as are many of the studies he did of friends and colleagues. 
Still, one gets used to the novelty of animation after about 10 minutes or so, and after that, all the stunningly rendered animation in the world cannot save a subpar script. Fortunately, that is never an issue here. It has ornate and intricately realized visuals, but its story is what really draws your attention.
The film essentially plays out like a police procedural, as the evidence of the painter’s last weeks are gone over by a ‘detective’, in this case, a family friend named Armand Roulin. To discover more about the painter's death, Roulin travels throughout France, interviewing those who were in the artist's inner circle.
His interviewees are portrayed by a number of acclaimed British actors who were first filmed on video. Then their scenes were painted over in a technique called rotoscoping which traces over that footage, frame-by-frame, turning the live action into animation. It's a style that manages to gives the film an uncanny sense of realism even though it's all painted so stylistically. 


Amongst the tony cast playing those in Van Gogh’s inner circle are Douglas Booth as Roulin, Chris O’Dowd as his father Joseph Roulin, Jerome Flynn as Dr. Gachet, Saoirse Ronan as Marguerite Gachet, Eleanor Tomlinson as Adeline Ravoux, and best of all, veteran character actor John Sessions as Pere Tanguy. Sessions is tasked with spouting a ton of exposition about Van Gogh's backstory, motivation, and personal foibles, but the shrewd talent manages to do all of it and sound entirely spontaneous. 

Ronan, so incredibly winning in her starring role as director Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD this month, manages to do similarly sublime work here in her intense role as one of Van Gogh’s muses. And Tomlinson brings a warmth and humor to her role as a young caretaker of Van Gogh, stymied by both the man's talent, as well as his self-destructiveness. 

For those unfamiliar with Van Gogh, the movie checks all the important boxes one needs to know from his biography, including his floundering inability to please his mother, as well as his famous and tortured friendship with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. Frankly, Gauguin is the one character that the movie could have included even more of, but it's a small flaw, especially considering so many other colorful characters are brought to brilliant life in LOVING VINCENT. 


As for those viewers who are exceedingly familiar with the biography of Van Gogh, the movie will play like a treasure trove of Easter eggs. Kobeila and Welchman reference dozens of Van Gogh’s paintings, and during the end credits, the filmmakers cheekily juxtapose Van Gogh's actual portraits next to stills of the cast as they were rendered in the movie. It serves as a stunning curtain call for the actors, as well as those artists who rendered the characters so faithfully to Van Gogh's impressions of them.


The film's music by Clint Mansell is award-worthy as it serves to both utterly stir and insidiously haunt, and when the filmmakers bring in Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night” to play over the end credits, it is impossible not to be moved to tears. Van Gogh truly was a light in the world, changing art with his passionate expressionism, yet the poor bastard was never appreciated in his time. He gave so much and deserved so much better than he got. If there is any justice in the world today, this expression of him will reach a wide audience and perhaps introduce a few newer generation to the man's artistry and importance.

And wouldn't it be great to see LOVING VINCENT make Best Animated Feature a real contest for once? Sure, Pixar will likely  prevail with their clever and gorgeous entry COCO, but here’s hoping that March 4th is a starry, starry night for you-know-who. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE FORMIDABLE DENZEL WASHINGTON ALMOST ERADICATES THE FLAWS OF ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Denzel Washington in the title role of ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (copyright 2017)

Is there any actor working today who exhibits the power that Denzel Washington does onscreen? No matter what the role, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And even when he’s playing negative characters like Alonzo, the crooked cop in TRAINING DAY or Troy, the self-delusional dad in FENCES, he imbues his characters with such substance and gravitas that you can’t help but be drawn to them, even if they’re ginormous pricks. Now, he’s back on the big screen, playing a borderline savant lawyer as the title character in the just released ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., and he’s still commanding every scene, driving the story, and almost eradicating the flaws in the screenplay. Almost.

Washington plays Israel, a behind-the-scenes lawyer working in a two-man law office fronted by a flamboyant and storied senior partner. When his mentor takes ill and lands in the hospital in a vegetative state, Israel starts to flounder. The smart but sheltered counselor has little courtroom experience, and he rubs most people the wrong way with his quirky and antisocial behavior. All of that strikes George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the high-priced lawyer given the task of shutting down the office when the senior partner finally dies, as offensive. He and Israel behave like oil and water almost immediately as the battle between the rich and righteous heats up.

Pierce used to be idealistic, but now he's so oily he practically glides into every room he enters. Still, he does see traces of his former idealistic self in Israel’s romanticism and tries to employ Israel. Israel is pigheaded though, and has no time for the corporate mindset, so he hits the bricks on his own. He searches for his own way, an honorable way, handing out his card to every potential client that comes along.

Farrell is formidable in his role as Pierce, but few can ever match Washington onscreen. Israel may be back on his heels in their scenes, but Washington is so strong that his Israel is never quite the hopeless eccentric that Gilroy’s script wants us to believe the character is. Part of that is simply because Washington is too savvy and shrewd of an actor for us to ever fully buy some of the goofier aspects of his Israel. The part may call for ill-fitting clothing, a heavy-footed manner, even obsessive face scratching - but Washington comes shy of making Israel 100% believable. Even when the character obsessively makes the same peanut butter and honey sandwich every day for lunch, the audience might be inclined to think that's not such a bad idea. That's how smart Washington comes off onscreen.

Still, the story tries gamely to portray Israel as a lost soul, wandering the streets of LA, too beleaguered or broke to even lease a car for transport. We're asked to believe that the veteran lawyer was existing on a meager $500 a week at his old job. That not only seems criminal but begs the question of whether Israel was ever clever enough to ask for a cost-of-living increase, let alone a raise. How did a brilliant mind accept that? Even the script starts to have trouble selling Israel as that clueless.

Then, as Israel tries to find gainful employment, his idealism leads him towards jobs where there is no money. He interviews with a civil liberties firm, but leaves when he realizes they can’t even pay him what he used to get as his former weekly compensation. At least Maya (Carmen Eyogo), the woman who spearheads the do-gooder practice, respects his history and scolds a co-worker who turns up his nose at Israel’s quirky idealism. (“We’re standing on his shoulders”, she reminds her fellow Millennial.)

Maya becomes a champion of Israel’s, inviting him to speak at a community gathering of others who are politically conscious from the neighborhood. She also becomes the story’s quasi-love interest, even though decades separate her and the aging lawyer. Luckily, Gilroy treats their one dinner date as a night out based more on friendship and mutual political interests. (I must admit I held my breath, worried that Gilroy was going to go down that Tinsel Town fantasy of pairing old men with women a third their age. Thankfully, he didn’t.)  

Ultimately, Maya is a sidelight, and a platonic one at that. The real story here is Israel’s legal career and after wandering aimlessly for a chunk of the story, the aging activist ends up back at Pierce’s glass-towered firm. He sucks up his pride and takes a bad job, stuck in a dinky office, and charged with wrapping up the residual cases from his old firm that Pierce won't sully his $3,000 fitted suits with.

Then, during an attempt to do right by a young gangbanger incarcerated on trumped up charges, Israel overplays his hand with a cynical district attorney and the previously agreed upon deal crumbles right before his eyes. That dumb maneuver ends up getting his young client killed in prison. Now, Israel’s conscience reels. To right the wrong, he chooses an utterly unethical course using privileged information to nab the true culprit, even reaping a $100,000 reward for ratting out the bad guy. 

From there, the rest of the movie becomes all about that ethical dilemma and Israel's comeuppance for dealing with the wages of sin. Sure, he enjoys having money to spend on suits and indulge in bacon maple donuts at the Santa Monica Pier, but his mind is plagued by his greed. It also doesn't help that the thug he turned in knows what he did and promises to exact revenge upon him. 

This character study, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, wants to be another MICHAEL CLAYTON and comes close until that ratting reward twist in the third act. Interestingly, that legal thriller  starring George Clooney in 2007 was written and directed by Dan’s brother Tony Gilroy and they both have a knack for telling stories about the ruthless politics of power through the POV of a hungry title character. Tony’s film was one of the best that year, and Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER, about a crime journalist who ruthlessly steps over all comers in his attempt to gain fame and fortune, was a standout in 2014 while treading similar terrain. Dan Gilroy is on the same type of ground here again, yet Israel’s story isn’t as complex or nuanced as in those other films. Because of that, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. misses out on greatness.

Israel’s unethical choice in the third act seems woefully out of character. After all, wouldn’t a smart lawyer like Israel, one who can quote legal precedent and statutes as quickly as Rain Man could count toothpicks, find a better answer to his problems than to merely cheat the system? Complicating matters even more is the fact that Washington conveys such intelligence that it makes his character's bad judgment seem all the more questionable. Washington can play naive, but not that dumb.

The film was better when it concentrated on Israel simply trying to fit in. Finding a job as a man of color, fighting blatant age discrimination all around him, struggling as an idealist in a world of cynics – that's more than enough story. The third act here becomes labored, "plotty", even corny in a “movie-movie” sort of way. And then it all careens to the inevitable conclusion that anyone can see coming a mile away. Dan Gilroy fails to create any sublime moments like the one in brother Tony's film when Tilda Swinton’s corporate shyster drops to her knees after Michael Clayton (George Clooney) has bested her in their game of cat and mouse. The only thing that drops to the floor here are our hopes that Gilroy's film would finish just as strong as his brother's.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a better film than its ending, but its miscalculation turns it from an African-American MICHAEL CLAYTON into an African-American LINCOLN LAWYER, even with such an intelligent and formidable talent like Washington in the role. He deserves better. We do too. And frankly, so did the wonderful character that Gilroy created named Roman J. Israel.

Monday, November 13, 2017

GRETA GERWIG’S “LADY BIRD” IS ONE OF THE ABSOLUTE BEST FILMS OF 2017

Original caricature by Jeff York of Saoirse Ronan in LADY BIRD. (copyright 2017)

Sometimes critics and audiences alike think a movie has to be big to warrant the term ‘best of the year.’ War movies, epics, ginormous biographies – these types of films often rise to the top of 10 best lists and at awards shows. But often, it is the simpler and even quieter films that resonate more. This year, that film is LADY BIRD, a coming-of-age story that may be small in scale but it is truly epic in what it accomplishes and what it makes us feel. And it’s easily one of this year’s absolute best.

It is the first film written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig and what a debut it is. She has learned a lot from her experiences being directed by filmmaker Noah Baumbach in films such as GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, and MISTRESS AMERICA. LADY BIRD has some of the same quirky, off-hand humor that Baumbach favors, but while her mentor often ridicules his characters, Gerwig treats hers more gently, creating a story that is always laughing with them, but never at them.

That respect starts with the main character. High school senior Christine McPherson (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, doing a flawless American accent) is not the typical lead you find in most coming-of-age films. She is not a tragically lost individual to be brought down a number of pegs on the journey to self-discovery. Rather, this girl will remain steadfast and shrewd throughout, no matter what obstacles are thrown her way. Granted, she will blunder a number of situations, but she will learn from those mistakes without being wholly humiliated. How wonderful to find such a smart, strong, and confident young woman presented onscreen. It is exceedingly rare, and in this year of WONDER WOMAN, women’s protests, and brave women taking down the likes of Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Louis C.K., Gerwig’s female lead could not be more “of the moment.”

Christine dubs herself “Lady Bird” and insists that it is her given name. “It’s given to me, by me”, she exclaims, and it’s just one of the ways that Lady Bird pushes the envelope to see what she can get away with within the boring confines of Sacramento. (She calls it the ‘Midwest of California’.) To spice things up, Lady Bird also dyes her dark hair magenta to counter the gray and black Catholic student uniforms, steals her math teacher’s grade book so he forgets she’s a C student, and hoists the school’s communion wafer supply to snack on with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

Despite such shenanigans, however, Lady Bird is really a good egg. She’s merely fighting conformity by refusing to grow up too fast. She loathes the status quo of the adult world around here especially her hard-ass mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Mom doesn’t have much faith in Lady Bird, going out of her way to constantly put her down, and Lady Bird will have none of it. Thus, she mouths off back to her, forges her own path, and even tells lies to further her agenda.

Lady Bird boasts of wealthy digs in the rich part of Sacramento, even though her parents are struggling to make ends meet in the middling part of town. She assumes airs as well, and dreams of escaping to the East Coast to be an accomplished artist or career girl. Lady Bird’s most defiant middle finger to all that her mom represents occurs in the first two minutes of the film. When mom becomes too strident in her control as they drive home from a trip to explore colleges, Lady Bird hurls herself out of the speeding car as the ultimate “Fuck you, I can’t take this anymore!” That shocking stunt earns her a broken arm and a cast for the first third of the film, but Gerwig treats it like it’s all part of dealing with Lady Bird and her odd, brazen choices.

In fact, Gerwig treats Lady Bird’s defiance very matter-of-factly throughout, recognizing that most teens go through similar disobedience. Where some coming-of-age stories would treat such actions as hysterical, Gerwig wisely doesn’t over-dramatize them. Instead, by being so droll about Lady Bird’s obstacle course, it makes her journey hysterically funny. Gerwig, like her lead Lady Bird, treats these moments as something to let wash off the back.

Lady Bird struggles with love interests too, but never in a histrionic fashion. She crushes on Danny (Lucas Hedges) the lead in her school’s joint musical production with a local boys’ Catholic school, but when she discovers he’s gay, it doesn’t ruin her world. Sure, she’s unhappy about it but she moves on and finds another boy to set her sights on. And even though they break up, Lady Bird doesn’t shun Danny. In fact, she is the shoulder he cries on when he confesses fear about coming out to his parents. Lady Bird is maturing, even though she may not entirely realize it.

The young woman screws up right and left, but she always manages to bounce back. She starts hanging out with rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), hoping to raise her cool factor, but when she’s caught lying about her middle-class background, Lady Bird comes clean immediately. She doesn’t cover that lie with more lies, as would happen in so many teen comedies. Instead, she apologizes and moves on. Again, Gerwig is showing how Lady Bird grows in smaller ways, rather than by one ginormous defining incident. That’s not only rare in coming-of-age films, it’s unusual in any Hollywood fare.  

In episode after episode, Lady Bird is faced with choices of behavior that she doesn’t always ace. Should she prank one of the old nuns at the school? Should she defy her mom and secretly apply for student aid to get into an out-of-state school? Should she give up her virginity to an aloof, pretentious classmate? Lady Bird makes bad choices with all three, but she’s never leveled for her risks. In her breezy and comic fashion, Gerwig has made one of the most female positive stories of the year.

Additionally, the filmmaker paints a more complex and nuanced mother/daughter relationship as well. The great revelation in this story is that Lady Bird and her mom are so much more alike than either of them wants to acknowledge. In fact, the very first shot of the film makes that point. The two wake up in a motel room, after a long trek to check out colleges, and their pillow profiles facing each other match perfectly. Throughout the film, Lady Bird is shown to be a very headstrong woman, and a bit of a pill, just like her mom. They’re both prickly, but they both have big hearts. If anything, both women care too much and that can get them into trouble.  Lady Bird wants to be someone who matters, and Marion wants to be a mom that does.

Marion is a fascinating character, a successful nurse/clinician helping patients with depression, but she can’t help but bring her own daughter down with her passive/aggressive mothering. Yet, despite playing such a quippy and often bitter cynic, Laurie Metcalf instills Marion with a sadness that makes her admirable even when she’s at her most awful. Her wounded puppy dog eyes give away the fact that mom’s bite is really just her defense mechanism against a world that continually craps in her corn flakes.

Still, Gerwig never lets such bitter emotions ruin the fun or let the sad moments in the story become maudlin. She’s an incredibly disciplined filmmaker, keeping things tight and on track, editing the film crisply and economically, but never pushing past emotional payoffs. Quite the contrary, as an actress Gerwig recognizes the moments where character moments need to breathe and she certainly gives her cast those golden opportunities. She gets great work from all her cast, even in the smallest roles. (Both Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson are sublime as Catholic teachers). Gerwig does especially well by Tracy Letts. He plays Lady Bird’s frustrated father Larry with gruff humor and quiet dignity. Midway through the film, the sixtysomething Larry gets laid off, and his interview with a young, vacuous HR head is both incredibly funny and quietly heartbreaking. Gerwig lets her camera linger there a tad longer, focusing on Letts' expressive face, to make the scene play all the more beautifully.

Even the biggest emotional scenes are kept in check and not overdone, all the more to render them realistically. Towards the end, Marion drives Lady Bird to the airport to head east for college, but refuses to get out of the car to say goodbye. Her excuse is that parking the car will cost money they don’t need to misspend. Then Marion has a change of heart and desperately tries to park to say goodbye. She misses her daughter, however, but Gerwig doesn't overplay the moment. The music doesn’t swell, nor do big tears. Instead, Gerwig lets Marion find comfort in the arms of her understanding husband.  

Lady Bird faces tough choices in every scene, and arguably, so does filmmaker Gerwig. The writer/director could have so easily trotted out a host of teenage angst-ridden clichés - the “kumbaya” moments, the snot-filled crying jags, the post-learning hugs – but she refuses to turn this into treacle. Instead, Gerwig strives for something more recognizable in every moment. She finds the off-hand humor and honesty in the situation, and such choices make for   one of the best freshman films in the history of the medium. Expect to see LADY BIRD figure strongly in the Oscar race this year, with likely nods for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Ronan does her career best work in this role), and Supporting Actress.
             
LADY BIRD is a film about taking flight, leaving the nest, and transcending childhood. By the end, Christine has become a young woman who is going to have a terrific future in front of her. The same is true of Gerwig’s career as a filmmaker.