Tag Archives: Film

Film Review: “Lady Bird” (2017)

Whenever a film receives a lot of praise from the critics, I’m always a bit skeptical. After all, is it really possible for a film to be that good?

Leave it to a film like Lady Bird to prove me absolutely wrong.

The film is, at first glance, a straightforward coming-of-age story. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) feels trapped in her humdrum teenage life in Sacramento, and she is particularly dissatisfied with the vision that her mother (Laurie Metcalf) has of her life and her future. She yearns for a brighter future outside of Sacramento, of going to a college on the East Coast and escaping.

One of the things that really stood out to me as I watched the film was how well it captured the ethos of 2002 (when the film begins). From the Justin Timberlake playing on the radio to the references to 9/11 to the barely-concealed poverty that afflicts Lady Bird’s family, so much of it rang true to my own remembrances of that time (I was roughly the same age as Lady Bird at the time).

Lady Bird is a film about how incredibly awkward it is to be a teenager. Sure, it can be exhilarating and exciting to do all the teenage things–apply to college, act in a play, even sleep with boys–but there also the flip side of these things. You don’t always get into the college that you wanted (despite your highest hopes), you don’t always get the part that you think you deserve (and you have to pretend to be happy for your best friend who does), and boys can be real shits.

It’s worth pointing out the absolute brilliance of Ronan. She manages to make Lady Bird a charismatic and likable character, even if she does do and say some pretty shitty things to both her family and her friends. Ronan, however, imbues her with a paradoxical awkward grace, a teenager who is at once supremely confident in her abilities yet profoundly uncomfortable with her impending adulthood. She likes to think that she is ready for the great big world of college, but throughout the film she increasingly realizes that this might not be as true as she would like to believe. While she is sometimes selfish and carelessly cruel, Lady Bird also has a proud and empathetic heart. Like all of us (teenagers and otherwise), she’s a contradictory person, and the film shows those contradictions in all their messy details.

It is also a film about the tensions that inevitably arise even when a mother and a daughter love one another fiercely. While there wasn’t as much attention to the “mama drama” component of the narrative as the trailers had led me to expect, the fraught relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is still one of the most important aspects of the film. Though it’s clear that they love one another, I’m still not entirely sure that they like each other. And, indeed, that is one of the questions the film asks: should parents and children like one another, or should they be content to love each other? Is it even possible to do both and still maintain a healthy parent/child relationship?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Metcalf threatens to steal the show. She has one of those faces that conveys a certain world-weary sadness in tandem with a frantic energy. There are several moments in the film when the camera is just about to cut away from her, and we see a certain frown twitch her lips downward, a mute testimony to the conflicted, yet intense, love she bears for her troublesome daughter. Just as Lady Bird feels burdened by her family, Marion bears her own scars and burdens, the result of her own soured relationship with her mother (briefly alluded to) and the family’s struggle with impending poverty. She knows that Lady Bird is ashamed of their circumstances, and it clearly breaks her heart. For all that, though, she clearly loves her fiercely.

The secondary characters also deserve praise. Lois Smith exudes grandmotherly charm as Sister Sarah Joan (and come on, who doesn’t love Lois Smith in literally anything?) Beanie Feldstein is also sublime as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, imbuing the role with a careless ease. Lucas Hedges also deserves praise for his charming awkwardness as Danny, Lady Bird’s onetime boyfriend who comes out to her in one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes.

Director Gerwig has a strong sense of atmosphere, and Lady Bird’s house manages to convey both comfort and imprisonment at the same time, a doubling that is true of Sacramento as a whole. Both home and city have a stale beauty about them.

Gerwig crafts a compelling yet simple portrait of the pleasures and pitfalls of female adolescence: the torment of young love, sublime joy of friendship, the conflicted feelings of family. Hopefully, the film’s critical acclaim heralds more such stories from Hollywood.

Executives, are you listening?

Film Review: “Wonderstruck” (2017) and the Joys of the Cinema

It’s become a commonplace to bemoan the glut of big-budget spectacles in Hollywood (and rightly so). I mean, I love seeing lots of things blown up and hearing superheroes make fun of each other as much as the next movie-goer, but occasionally I like to see a film that has a strong story with compelling, well-drawn characters, a distinctive look, and a resonant emotional core.

Fortunately for those of us who like a good story told well, there’s a filmmaker like Todd Haynes.

With his most recent film, Wonderstruck, Haynes demonstrates once again his talents as a director who not only knows the particular qualities of the medium has chosen to work in, but also loves telling stories through film. Somewhere along the line recently, we seem to have lost a little bit of our own wonder at the ability of the medium to tell us stories that matter to us in a way that is different from literature, drama, or television. Through Wonderstruck, a story fundamentally about the search for family in the midst of the chaos of modern life, Haynes shows us the simple pleasures that can still be found in the cinema.

The film follows two narrative strands, one in 1927 and one in 1977. In 1927 New York, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) dreams of an escape from her father’s oppressive home to see her actress mother on the stage. Though hearing-impaired, she is determined to make her way there. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) sets out for NYC in search of his father.

Haynes has a well-deserved reputation for visual artistry, but this film demonstrates that he has a similarly fine-tuned sense of sound. The portions of the film devoted to Rose’s journey is highly evocative, with a near-constant orchestral score that heightens her feelings of excitement, sadness, and joy. The 1970s portion is a much busier soundscape. Though Ben is also hearing-impaired (as a result of an accident involving lightning), there is a lot more ambient noise, a reflection of the chaotic New York City of the 1970s.

That’s not so say that the film isn’t visually stunning. As always, Haynes has a keen eye for visual composition, as with the almost impressionistic look of his 1920s New York, and the brash hues of the 1970s. This shouldn’t surprise us: Haynes has one a sharp eye for colour, perhaps the sharpest of any director working today. While the film may not be as chromatically complex as either Far from Heaven or Carol, it still a look all its own.

The two younger actors really shine in their roles. Simmonds, the newcomer, really does seem like one of the child stars of the silent era, with her combination of precociousness and innocence. Oakes Fegley similarly shines, though he has a rougher edge than Simmonds.

Millicent (2).jpg
Millicent Simmonds has a bright career ahead of her.

While she plays a smaller part than in most of her other films with Haynes, Moore radiates warmth as older Rose and a brutal beauty as Rose’s mother. I’ve always been one of Moore’s biggest fans, and I’m really glad that Haynes continues to give her parts in which she can shine.

If you don’t like Julianne Moore, I don’t know what to tell you.

The film moves slowly, but when it comes together at the end it makes the entire journey worth it. If you don’t feel a lump welling in your throat at the final revelations, then I think you should have yourself examined to make sure that you’re fully human. There is a true depth of emotion in this film that is (if I may be frank) a little rare in Haynes’ earlier films but has become increasingly common. For me, Carol really marked the turning point, when he started allowing genuine feeling to emerge in his films, and they are definitely the better for it.

Wonderstruck is also about the joy of modernity. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the chaos of our everyday lives, when the world seems to rush by it as an increasingly fast pace. Fortunately for us, Haynes allows his imagination and his camera to capture the beauty and, yes, the wonder of the world. Whether the expressionist landscapes of the 1920s or the grungy look of the 1970s, Haynes allows us to embrace the pleasures of the world.

In the end, Wonderstruck is a moving rumination on the power of family, friendship, and memory and the way that we make sense of the world around us. There’s a lot to love in this film, and I heartily recommend it.

Adventures in Research (1): The Cyclorama of Jerusalem

Some time ago, while I was doing research for Chapter 2 of my Dissertation, I stumbled across the existence of a 19th Century panorama entitled The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. This popular attraction, located in the small town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec, depicts the moment of the Crucifixion, as well as Jerusalem and its environs. With its rich depth-of-field and immersive, 360° construction, The Cyclorama sought to provide visitors with an immersive experience that would allow them to encounter the exact moment when Christ was crucified.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to see just how far Sainte-Anne was from Syracuse, and it turned out that it was about 6.5 hours, not bad at all. When an opportunity came to go to a conference in Montreal, I thought I would seize the opportunity to make a jaunt up to see this cyclorama for myself.

I am very glad that I did.

Believe it or not, cycloramas were all the rage in the late 19th Century, and many have identified them as a precursor to the cinema. They typically depicted famous battles or other historical events that were deemed culturally significant; in fact, there is another extant cyclorama located at Gettysburg. Stylistically, they often emphasized both depth and breadth, so that the presumptive spectator could feel as if they were fully immersed in the midst of history. For the 19th Century, a period consumed with the consumption of history, the cyclorama was a tremendous opportunity to escape the bounds of modernity.

Even today, over 100 years after its original painting, this cyclorama is still awe-inspiring in the scale of its accomplishment. If you are willing to pay the extra $2 to rent a pair of binoculars, you can can get a real sense of the extraordinary detail with which this pivotal moment in the history of Christianity has been depicted. This was clearly a project that entailed a great deal of love and affection on the part of its creators, who have endowed the entire thing with a feeling of profound sanctity.

As strange as it may sound, while I stood there gazing, I could imagine myself caught at the interstice of several temporal planes: in the 1st Century CE (as bizarre as that sounds), perhaps even at the Crucifixion itself; at the end of the 19th Century, when spectacle-hungry tourists would have gazed in wonder at this marvel of artistry and technology; and in the present day, as a fledgling scholar interested in theories of immersion and embodied religious spectating. All seemed to be present in me (and I in them), as I stood on the balcony looking out at the vast expanse of the cyclorama.

What’s more, the painting itself seems caught up in its own chronotopic complexity. While Christ hangs suspended on the Cross, the world seems to move on around him. Aside from those standing at the foot of the Cross gazing up at his abjected body, many of the figures in the painting seem to be going on about their daily lives, heedless of the momentous event that has just transpired in their midst. Both stasis and movement are a key part of the cyclorama’s appeal. Likewise, the moment that it captures seems to be both in and outside of history, as Christ breathes his last and escapes from the worldly plane, it’s hard not to feel a sense of bereavement that, regardless of which temporal plane one inhabits at that particular moment, one is still stuck in the midst of historical time. The entire cyclorama, both in theme and execution, remains caught at the intersection of stasis and action.

What stood out to me the most, at least at a physical level, was the way my body responded to it as I was standing there. It is breathtaking in scope in a very literal way. When you first ascend the stairs and see the vista laid out before you, you suck in your breath at the sense of spatial disorientation that accompanies seeing the vastness of this accomplishment. Just as importantly, I also felt my eyes begin to feel the strain of gazing at this scene, and while I’m not entirely sure why that was–whether it was the poor lighting, the sheer scale of the painting, or something else entirely–it also kept bringing me back into my body, disrupting the sense of transcendence that always seemed just at the cusp of attainment.

Unfortunately, the future of The Cyclorama of Jerusalem is in some doubt. According to one of the attendants, there has been a marked decrease in funding, and apparently most of the upkeep for the Cyclorama comes from the nearby church. As a media historian, this saddens me deeply, as it is just another example of how much historical knowledge and experience is threatened with extinction by the relentless march of modernity and the unwillingness of many people to seek out the sort of roadside attractions that were once such a central part of the modern experience. Sure, there are parts of it that are a bit campy, but that doesn’t lessen the value of this attraction as a relic of a previous time, one that was an important precursor for the cinema.

If you can, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to this magnificent piece of artistic achievement. Sure, parts of it are a little kitschy (the location looks more than a little orientalist, complete with domes), and the interior looks as if it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. Rather than mocking it, though, I prefer to find it charming, a little reminder of the sorts of roadside attractions that once dotted the North American landscape, vestiges from a world that has been left behind.

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I’m really glad that I visited The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. What’s more, I’m now more convinced than I was before that this sort of attraction was a pivotal precursor for the widescreen processes of the 1950s.

Stay tuned for my next adventure in research, which will hopefully be another cyclorama, this one at Gettysburg.