Posts Tagged indie film

Elephant

Year of release: 2003              Directed by Gus Van Sant.     Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

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It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.

I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.

A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.

I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.

I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.

Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.

As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.

Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.

 

Personal recommendation: F

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Year of Release: 2016     Directed by Stephen Cone. Starring Cole Doman, Pat Healy, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Joe Keery, Daniel Kyri, and Nina Ganet.

I did not grow up in a fundamentalist home. Religious home, certainly, but by no stretch could my parents or church community be called fundamentalist. Over the years, I have had enough occasional run-ins with fundamentalist Catholics that I could appreciate the critique of misguided Catholic fundamentalism in the recent Stations of the Cross. Evangelical fundamentalism, however, is something that I’ve only heard about through reading accounts of people who grew up in such a culture.

I mention this because it seems to me that some familiarity with Evangelical fundamentalism is essential to fully appreciate Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. As someone with very limited knowledge of such a culture, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party or even if the culture is totally fundamentalist, and thus I feel that my opinion regarding this film should probably be taken with some grain of salt.

That disclaimer aside, there were several aspects of the culture depicted in this film that I found interesting but also unbelievable. For instance, would the most conservative, religious Christian girl really wear the most revealing bikini at the pool party? Do conservative Christians who abhor homosexuality really see no problem whatsoever with masturbation or objectifying women as objects to fantasize over? And what adult (Christian or not) brings wine to a high school birthday party, especially when that party is for the pastor’s kid, even if the wine is just for the adults?

I am aware that there is a plot-related reason for all those incidents, but I still found them unbelievable and consequently distracting.

The basic premise of the film is that Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is celebrating his seventeenth birthday with a pool party thrown by his parents, during which he comes to term with his same sex attraction for one of his school friends. There’s a little bit of clash at the party between Henry’s secular school friends and his highly religious church friends, but most of the focus seems to be on the other characters: Henry’s best friend Gabe (Joe Keery) who desperately wants to get laid, Henry’s older sister Autumn (Nina Ganet) who’s home from college and struggling with doubts about how to apply her faith to her adult life, their mother who stands alone upset over something, an older family friend who believes the immodesty on display by the pool leads to sex-trafficking, her husband who is overly eager to drink the aforementioned wine, the troubled Bible camp advisor who may be gay, and another Bible camp advisor who along with his pregnant wife seems blissfully unaware of the tension brewing.

As can be seen, there are a lot of characters, and for an eighty minute movie, there are too many. I understand that many of these characters are suffering some sort of crisis, but to be dropped into the middle of their struggles with only a line or two of dialogue telling us the source of their troubles instead of showing us makes it difficult to fully appreciate the damage being wrought in this community.

Writer/director Stephen Cone is acutely aware of the harm that can result from believing the body is not a temple of the Holy Spirit, but instead something dirty to be ashamed of. The focus on the swimsuit clad actors drives the tension of that theme home strongly. Less strong is the critique of fundamentalist attitudes toward homosexuality, because other than four or five brief scenes that theme really isn’t discussed, and when it’s discussed the complex range of attitudes seemed grossly oversimplified.

One thing I really appreciated is that the teens’ dialogue is as unsophisticated as teenage discussion normally is, and the young actors inhabit their roles naturally and convincingly. Also, as a director, Cone can frame a scene with clarity and focus. I just wish his concise script had had that same clarity and focus.

 

Content Advisory: Quasi-explicit sexual banter between high school boys accompanied by masturbation, a fleeting sex scene between young adults, self harm inflicted by a razor, and some vulgar language.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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Mistress America

MV5BODI2ODc5NzY3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg1NzUzNjE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_Year of release: 2015.                       Directed by Noah Baumbach.                        Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Heather Lind, and Michael Chernus.

Everyone knows the classic storyline in which an awkward protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by the unique newfound friend who gave said awkward protagonist a new confident outlook on life, because that friend, who had been overly idolized, makes an asinine mistake. What this film presupposes is: what if the newfound friend was never overly idolized and what if the awkward protagonist is the one who makes the asinine mistake?

Mistress America is a film that defies any simple genre classification. Sure, it’s certainly a comedy, highlighting the humor in perfectly ordinary situations, exaggerating and laughing with the characters at the small everyday blunders everyone makes. (Panicking over what type of pasta to buy for a casual gathering is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year.) At the same time, the film is keenly aware of the brokenness and hurt that small acts of selfishness cause, acts which most people don’t even think about. Consequently, it takes a sobering dramatic turn, which briefly threw me for a loop, even though the more I think about it, the more perfectly that turn ties the film together.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is our awkward protagonist, who desperately wants to be accepted into the cool lit-club as she begins her freshman year at college in NYC. Shy enough not to get invited to parties, confident enough to fall asleep in a twelve-person class, and self-conscious enough to be overly guarded around anyone she wants to impress, Tracy seems like a fairly typical college student: fairly intelligent yet anxious and lost regarding to how she fits into the world.MV5BMTYzMTI4MTg4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjg1NzUzNjE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_

Brooke (Greta Gerwig) has no qualms about how she fits into the world. As she haphazardly descends into Tracy’s life (literally, that’s Gerwig’s first entrance), she inspires the fledgling writer with a passion for life and confidence in her abilities. The two are soon to be step-sisters, as Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and they bond better than many sisters, as Brooke unreservedly welcomes Tracy into her life, showing her the city and the odd collection of jobs she works, all the while dreaming of opening a restaurant.

Brooke’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle is naturally perfect for Gerwig’s effervescent screen persona, even going so far as to reference one of her repeated quirks from Frances Ha with an easy to miss cameo. However, small cracks appear in the world which Brooke has constructed and which Tracy eagerly accepts. None of Brooke’s grand plans ever seem to come to fruition. All of her money is precariously tied up in the restaurant, which could fall through at any moment. An old high school acquaintance of Brooke runs into them in a bar, and her bitterness at Brooke’s past teasing of her clearly reveals real hurt, even as Brooke downplays the incident and refuses to apologize for something she barely remembers and doesn’t really believe was wrong.

At the same time, Tracy is careening down a path which will soon place her in a similar situation to the one Brooke was in with her former high school acquaintance. Tracy may be enamored of Brooke when around her, but when she writes her short stories (inspired by one of Brooke’s failed ideas) she’s acutely aware of Brooke’s imperfections and unhesitant to dramatize them. The result is a scene familiar to any film about a budding friendship, yet played out from an unexpected point of view, humorously providing more than one side to a multitude of characters.

As Tracy reads her story via voiceover, the story highlights the aspect which Brooke and Tracy share, which makes their friendship so natural and believable, as unexpected and unusual as it may be. Both of them try to fit into the world both as it is and as they want it to be, aware of its imperfections, yet overlooking their own, believing that they have the power to change it through a story or a restaurant even as they let other aspects of their lives fall apart. The desire to cast oneself as a superhero, saving the world on the side like a “Mistress America,” is a folly which I think is fairly common. The reality is other perspectives exist all around us, and we often chose not to perceive them, and the consequences of our selfishness are funny and sad, but only because we recognize how we have messed up and how we have an opportunity to do better.

Throughout all the screwball shenanigans Mistress America maintains whimsical tone, finding humor in both joy and sorrow. It may not quite be the masterpiece that is Frances Ha, but it is another great film from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, proving them to be one the best writer-director teams working today.

Personal Recommendation: A

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