Friday, December 1, 2017

"Lady Bird" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Lady Bird" as well as DVDs "Maudie" and "Seraphine." The Book of the Week is "Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How THE GRADUATE Became the Touchstone of a Generation."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with "Shanghai Express."]





Lady Bird



A year in the life of a 17-year-old girl growing up in Sacramento in 2002.

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic girls school in Sacramento, California.  It's 2002 and she is your typical seventeen-year-old girl in that she's not typical at all.  She has changed her name to Lady Bird and insists that everyone call her that including her family. Like I said.  She's 17.  Christine's Lady Bird persona is a symbol for just what it means to be a 17- going-on-18-year-old girl - changing personas, trying out new identities as she grapples with the onset of adulthood. One foot still in childhood and one foot ready to head out the door.

It's a year in the life of Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is in her final year of high school and like many people her age, she yearns to get the hell out of Dodge, er, Sacramento.  She calls Sacramento "The Midwest of California." She wants to go to a prestige college in New York City, but her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse, says, no way, they can't afford it, because Lady Bird's Dad, Larry (Tracy Letts) has just been laid off and finances are a problem, not to mention that Lady Bird's grades are not exactly stellar. But Larry is more sympathetic and helps her with financial aid applications, neither of them telling Marion. 

Lady Bird goes through the usual teenage angst: she finds a boyfriend (or two), loses her virginity, dumps her loyal chubby best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for a member of the cool crowd, and fights with her mother one minute and loves and needs her the next. Every day in Lady Bird's life is impulsive and intense. 

But what could have been just another run-of-the-mill coming of age story is a fresh, original one, full of life and affection thanks to Greta Gerwig's wonderful screenplay and deft directing.

Heretofore Gerwig has been known as an actress playing quirky young women - writer/director Noah Baumbach's muse in several of his hipster millennial character studies.  I have been a huge fan of hers and kept wondering when she would break out.  Well, she has, but in an entirely new and different capacity - writer/director. 

This film is just wonderful. 

It's so real that anyone from any generation over the last 50 years can relate.  I graduated from high school almost 40 years before this film takes place and yet Lady Bird could have been me.  Her mother could have been mine.  Come to think of it, raising my kids, I could have been Lady Bird's mother.  Gerwig has created characters and an adolescence we have all known and/or can relate to.

I am also guessing that this is Gerwig's real life story and a love letter to her family and Sacramento since, like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento with a mother in the medical field and a father who was a computer programmer.  She went to an all-girls Catholic high school and attended Barnard College in New York City.  And like Lady Bird, Gerwig has described herself as an "intense child."  So duh.

They say the mother/daughter relationship is one of the most complicated and Gerwig has captured that essence in Lady Bird's relationship with her mother, and Laurie Metcalf, who has mostly toiled on TV since "Roseanne," is amazing. Her Marion loves her daughter and wants her to be the best she can be, but,  unfortunately like so many mothers, it is easier for her to criticize than to praise in order to get her daughter there.  She just can't bring herself to really show her daughter how much she loves her and how much she cares.  Just a stunning performance that could earn Metcalf a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. 

And speaking of Academy Awards, expect one for Gerwig for Best Original Screenplay.  Though she collaborated with Noah Baumbach on the screenplays for "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America," this is her first solo effort. There are so many layers at work in the story that there is something for everyone to grab onto and nod, "Yes."  The story is so real and compelling, I didn't want the movie to end. 

Saoirse Ronan, whose name is pronounced "Sur-Sha" (you are welcome), who first stunned as a very young girl in "Atonement" and then wowed everyone in  "Brooklyn (she garnered both Academy Award and Golden Globe Best Actress nominations)," is also spot-on in the many moods that are Lady Bird and could also get another Best Actress nod. 

But all of the ensemble cast are wonderful.  Tracy Letts, whom I admired in "The Lovers," is outstanding as Lady Bird's warm and understanding father, as is Lois Smith as a very cool and understanding nun breaking the stereotype of strict nuns in Catholic girls' schools.  But all of the actors bring realism and life to this story that is fresh, original and unexpected.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a not to be missed movie experience.  One of the best films of the year!  Oh, and I cried.





***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

On DVD




Maudie (2016)



Biopic of beloved Canadian folk artist, Maud Lewis.

Born in 1903 in Nova Scotia, Canada, Maude (Sally Hawkins) suffered from crippling juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and growing up was mocked by the local children and shunned by the community because she had a child out of wedlock, though that storyline is only briefly played out.  When both parents died, Maud's brother inherited everything, as was the way things were then, and he foisted Maud off on their aunt who wasn't much nicer to her.  She had a hard life but a happy spirit and occupied herself painting little cards and smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.

When Maud was 34 and she had enough of being treated like a child by her aunt, she met Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fish peddler and 40-year-old bachelor-hermit, when she appeared on the doorstep of his one room shack answering an ad for a live in housekeeper.  It was a rough start, not just because Everett's house had no electricity or heat, but also because Everett was socially inept and wasn't very nice to Maud but she hung in there and her pure sweet heart eventually won him over. 

The two married over mutual need, not romance, but you know how these things work.  Though he lorded over her and he treated her like he didn't really care -  "You're harder to look after than a dog," to which Maudie replies, "I'm better than a dog" -  she grew on him and eventually knew how to get him to do what she wanted, and when her little paintings started getting noticed, his ears perked up.  Money was always on Everett's mind and there was nothing like a little extra money. 

 
Maudie and Everett were two lost souls who found each other in the early twentieth century wilds of rural Nova Scotia and somehow made that combination work.

"We're like a pair of odd socks," Maudie says to Everett.

Maudie's art is discovered and she and Everett sell her little paintings from their home and from the local grocery store.  Maudie also decorates the house with her painting and paints on everything she can from the walls to the stairs to the windows.

Naturally as Maudie's fame grows, her errant brother returns to try to benefit from Maude's fame but she will have none of it.  And it doesn't matter because Maudie's paintings never sold for more than a few dollars in her lifetime, but today she is considered one of Canada's finest folk artists and an originator of the Naïve Art Movement.


Maud's smoking eventually claims her and the film ends with an epilogue showing the real Maud and Everett Lewis.

Though Maud Lewis led a harsh narrow life, her story is one of courage and determination despite her crippling arthritis and crude living conditions.  Her artistic spirit lifted her up.

She looks out a window and says,

"The whole of life already framed...right there..."

Sally Hawkins is a wonderful actress and though Hawke is very good here and plays against type, this film is all about Hawkins.  She literally transforms her body into the crippled Maud, and as Maud ages, Hawkins believably continues to transform as Maudie's arthritis hunches her over and cripples her hands.

Written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh, this is a slow-moving character study that is not for everyone, but if you appreciate brilliant acting and hang in there, you will be rewarded with performances that don't get much better than Hawkins and Hawke in this charming, heartwarming story that will bring you to tears.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a very affecting and inspiring film that brings Maud Lewis's story to life because of two wonderful performances.







Seraphine (2008)


Another biopic about an unlikely artist - Seraphine de Senlis.

Born Seraphine Louis, Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) was an artistic savant who painted in the naïve style. Self-taught, she was inspired by her religious faith and by stained-glass church windows and other religious art with a little madness thrown in.

"Feuilles"

Like Maud Lewis (see review above), Seraphine was an uneducated woman who made her living as a house cleaner.  Her life was hardscrabble, but she found joy in religion, nature and her painting. She felt she was being called to paint by her guardian angel. 

By day she would clean and iron for her employers and at night she would paint by candlelight using animal blood from the butcher, clay from the fields and other "secret" ingredients to make her paint. German art critic, Wilhel Uhde (Ulrich Turkur) discovers Seraphine's talents and takes her under his wing. Uhde had discovered Rousseau and was determined to turn her into a painting sensation. 

The film is slow to get started and for Seraphine's talents to be recognized but once Uhde finds a painting by Seraphine, he is mesmerized despite the fact that her landlady thinks her paintings are silly.  He asks Seraphine if there are more and she reluctantly shows him her work.  Uhde becomes obsessed with Seraphine but she is not happy to be discovered.  However, she has a crush on Uhde who eventually tells her that he will never marry a woman, which is why he came to France. Then WW I comes along, Uhde goes back to Germany leaving Seraphine behind.  

Fast forward to 1927 Chantilly.  Uhde is back in France and believes that Seraphine is dead but when he attends a local art show he sees a painting that is most certainly by Seraphine.  He seeks her out and once again wants to promote Seraphine's art.  He becomes her patron and tells her that he will support her so that all she needs to do is paint, but this sudden change in circumstance doesn't sit well and she starts hearing voices and acting strangely. When the Depression hits and Uhde can no longer support Seraphine, she is disappointed, succumbs to madness and ends up in a mental hospital.  Perhaps there is a fine line between artistic genius and madness. She and her art became famous after her death.

Moreau, a Belgian actress who is the only Belgian actress to ever win a Cesar Award for Best Actress, has that je ne sais quoi, pardon my French.  You can't take your eyes off of her.

Written by Marc Abdelnour and Martin Provost and directed by Provost, the film was widely acclaimed and won six Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of our Academy Awards), including Best Film and Best actress.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a remarkably beautiful film marked by a remarkably beautiful performance by Moreau.
(In French with English subtitles)



***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***




164 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?




Shanghai Express (1932)


In the midst of a civil war in China in 1931, the notorious Shanghai Lily meets an ex-lover while on a train to Shanghai.

Captain Donald "Doc" Harvey (Clive Brook) is on his way to Shanghai when his friends tell him they are all sharing the train with the notorious Shanghai Lily, a "coaster."  The name means nothing to Doc who also doesn't know what a "coaster" is.  He is informed that a "coaster" is a woman who lives by her wits along the China Coast.  Well, we all know what "living by her wits" in a 1930's movie is a euphemism for, right?  Anyway, everyone has heard of Shanghai Lily, but no one knows what she looks like.  Since Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a glamorous Chinese woman, is traveling on the train, one might think that she will turn out to be Shanghai Lily but no... 

When Doc finally meets Shanghai Lily, he realizes it is not a Chinese woman, but his old love from five years ago, a woman he has never forgotten (Marlene Dietrich). 

The film stars a very young and glamorously veiled Marlene Dietrich as a loose woman - how do we know she is a loose woman?  Well, first of all she smokes. And second, she wears her hat with a veil at night.  We all know that if you are a respectable woman, you only wear a hat with a veil during the day.  Only ladies of the night wear veils at night!  That's good to know, but I just want to know why we wore hat veils at all!

Anyway, the train is full of disparate characters all cloistered on the train. Everyone is kind of dodgy and suspicious. I felt like I was watching "Murder on the Orient Express" again!

The train is stopped by some Chinese soldiers and everyone is ordered off the train. They are looking for spies and eventually pull someone off.  Later, Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), who at first seemed like a charming businessman actually turns out to be the Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army and now he and his cohorts overrun the train.  He is not happy that one of his guys was arrested, so Chang takes Doc hostage in hopes of getting his man back.  In the meantime, he has nefarious plans for Doc, so Lily employs that age old plot device of a woman sacrificing her honor to the villain to save her man.  

Mr. Chang is described as a half Chinese, half white person.  However, Oland is not half Chinese and half white in real life but rather a Swedish actor, which isn't too egregious casting since the character is supposed to be half white.  However, Oland went on to fame as the Chinese detective, Charlie Chan, a strange bit of casting, indeed, for a Swedish actor. Sadly, in those days, ethnic characters were rarely played by actors in the appropriate ethnic group but by white actors in make-up, a practice that has fortunately mostly disappeared, though African American, Asian and Native American actors are still under represented in film today. 

The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg who, though a famous director in his day may mostly remember now as Gloria Swanson's protective butler in "Sunset Boulevard." But in his heyday, he was an auteur and was also obsessed with Dietrich.  He made seven films with her and his obsession is apparent in his long lingering close-ups of Dietrich's high cheek-boned face, veiled, wreathed with smoke, adorned by feathers, you name it.  It's all about Dietrich all of the time.

Why it's a Must See:  "...the film belongs to Sternberg and Dietrich, and the strange fetishistic chemistry between them.  Together they created something deliriously unique in cinema; apart they were never quite able to recapture the same magic."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...though dated, this is classic Hollywood entertainment that is stylishly filmed and a good example of why Marlene Dietrich became such a cult icon.




***Book of the Week***




Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How "The Graduate" Became the Touchstone for a Generation by Beverly Gray (2017) 


Can you believe it's been 50 years since we first saw "The Graduate?"

Well, you younger folks weren't even born yet but for us Baby Boomers, "The Graduate" was a big deal.  And it was a big deal for Dustin Hoffman, a small and unlikely leading man, because this film made him a big star.

Who can forget the word "Plastics" or the line "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"

This film appeared on the scene right when us Baby Boomers were wanting to distance ourselves from the world of our parents, when we were discovering sex and worrying about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives and young Benjamin Braddock embodied all of that. We could all relate to young Benjamin as he tried to decide what to do with his life.  But in the meantime, why not have an affair with your girlfriend's mother?  Shocking!

Gray, a Hollywood insider, presents a well-researched book about the making of this film, a film that no one had any idea would become such a classic.

"The Graduate was intended as a small, sexy comedy based on an obscure novel by a first-time author.  Neither its producer nor its director was a member of Hollywood's inner circle.  Its cast was led by a short, big-nosed New York actor who, in the eyes of the era's pundits, looked nothing like a leading man...But when 'The Graduate' hit theaters in late December of 1967, moviegoers instantly took notice...Young people clapped and cheered; their elders flocked to see for themselves what their offspring found so provocative.  Soon intellectuals, religious leaders, and even politicians were weighing in, trying to use 'The Graduate' as a key to understanding those unruly post-World War II children who were now coming of age in large numbers."

Enter THE BABY BOOMERS!

Gray uses the film as a social commentary on the coming of age of Baby Boomers, but it's mostly a very detailed behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Fans of the film might enjoy all of the details that Gray presents - that Gene Hackman was originally slated to play Mr. Robinson but was fired at the last minute or how they chose the church for the film's finale, but I have to wonder, outside of people who are obsessed with this film, how many people really want to read a scene-by-scene synopsis and analysis of the movie?

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you are a super fan of this film you will love the juicy insider details, but if not, this just might be too much.  You might just want to skip the book and watch the movie instead.

Thanks for reading!




See you next Friday 


for my review of  


"Wonder"  


 and


 The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)


 and the latest on



"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project."

  

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Check your local library for DVDs and books mentioned.
Next time you are wondering whether or not to watch a particular film, check out my reviews on IMDB (The International Movie Database). 


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