Lady Bird

Lady Bird is like an organic, non-G.M.O. version of Mean Girls. That may sound like a dig, but what I mean is that Greta Gerwig improves upon, and makes her own, a well-established but entirely respectable coming-of-age formula. Her movie is almost perfect for what it is, which happens to be a teenage girl’s journey to adult consciousness—but is really the shared story of every young person from “the provinces” with creative ambitions whose bubble gets pierced by that pin called life. Happily, this bubble is resilient, and the pin mercifully dull: all that leaks out is childish arrogance. I think the delight one takes in this movie is in watching Saoirse Ronan learn the lessons that you, as a creative person, and a lucky one at that, already know. There are keen, relatable observations, but few revelations.

Foremost among Gerwig’s life lessons is: call your mother. If Lady Bird’s incipient appreciation of home—podunk Sacramento—has a foundation, it’s the relationship between her and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). One caught glimpses of an analogous parenting style in Room, where Joan Allen held Brie Larson’s family together with a minimum of fuss. That was in the thick of crisis, though. In the McPhersons’ world—the minefield of minor emergencies endemic to the working poor—Marion’s fuss is the bill everyone else pays for their (relative) stability. Lady Bird, afflicted with the brain chemistry of a 17-year-old, takes Mama Bird’s pecking for granted, unaware that in its absence she’d be sleeping on a dirt floor.

Metcalf has what might be called Resting Mom Face; her lower lip puffs out a bit because that’s where her next nag is queued up. But she pairs her deadpan to an extraordinary gift for timed releases of guilt or stress that were honed, perhaps, in front of live studio audiences on Roseanne. The biggest case in point is the way her pupils slide up when she knows she’s being evasive—I’m thinking of Marion’s response when the daughter asks if her mother likes her: Marion pouts for a second, and hedges.

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Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson, already a man of prodigious talents, has become our foremost specialist in nonsexual romance. (Don’t tell Maya Rudolph.) To my mind, The Master (2012) is a treasure of infinite suggestiveness: an eagle with a wingspan as wide as the imagination. It grazed the appeal of religious zealotry, and its vulnerability to sham; the interplay of power and restraint in an America at the pinnacle of its century; and what same-sex attraction meant when it couldn’t be reduced to, or complicated by, letters in an ever-elongating acronym. The director’s new film, Phantom Thread, is set in England during the same middle slab of the last century. He drifts through the rubble of old-world mores like a fly on a rotting wall.

Once again, we land in the center of a chaste ménage à trois. Or, more precisely, at the edge, because its participants would doubtfully be in the middle of anything that isn’t woven by their respective delusions. The two closest to the center are the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his protégé and muse. Hovering over the periphery is Reynolds’s spinster sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). The influence she exerts over Reynolds’s life, as his talent agent and business manager, maps to Amy Adams’s susurrant matriarch in The Master. As an index to the sibling relationship, Reynolds’s pet name for Cyril is “my little so-and-so”; that, plus the enervated tone in which it’s uttered, says a lot: if nothing else, it speaks to how inbred the British upper classes were.

Anderson’s basic attitude toward artists is less shocking than his attitudes toward cult leaders or oilmen. Shriveled by his unchecked vanity, Reynolds makes Day-Lewis’s Lincoln look like President Taft; the offense he takes at being served asparagus with butter instead of olive oil is fair indication of how he maintains his heroin chic. Apropos of nothing other than her own projections, Alma tells him, on their first date, that he’s only pretending to be strong. It isn’t much of a pretense. If a woman models one of his gowns with an inadequately tightened drawstring, he’ll sink into a depression for days. (As pretty as his work is, however, Reynolds has nothing on whoever dressed Katharine Graham. I guess Reynolds wasn’t into caftans.)

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The Post

I happened on Steven Spielberg’s first feature film recently: The Sugarland Express (1974). It’s like lighting coming out the bottle. His genius for staging was raring to go; not to mention layers of dialogue, piling on like punches; and other little tells. For instance, at one point the protagonists (fugitives from justice) are camping out in a lot, and a cadre of Second Amendment fiends swings by. When the fusillade commences, however, we watch the violence play out on the youngest face in the group—a budding poindexter in thick glasses. He retreats from the fight and back into innocence.

That boy recurs in Spielberg films over the years: as Tad Lincoln, or an alien abductee, even an alien adopter. He might be the secret point-of-view character—the autobiographical Easter egg. (It’s not coincidental that this director once made a movie about Peter Pan.) In The Post, the boy exists as Katharine Graham’s grandchildren, slumbering peacefully as she saves the world. Like others of his generation, Spielberg likes the idea of having adults in the room, even if he doesn’t count himself among them.

Luckily, his fellow-baby boomer Meryl Streep shows no such reticence. In truth, I could feel a little pain in my spine when this film was prefaced by a trailer for Mama Mia: Here We Go Again. Nobody’s perfect, even if Streep comes close. Somehow, the country-club intonations she tangles into her newspaper publisher’s voice channel an unlikely source: Jimmy Stewart. It’s inconceivable. Streep out-everymans Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee, the role Jason Robards smoldered through in All the President’s Men). Perhaps it isn’t convincing from an historical perspective, but it’s amazing from an acting one. Graham waffles in polite society, her character’s native habitat; but the actress shows her (and Graham’s) mettle at the decisive moment. Streep and Spielberg harmonize on this masterful blend of world-shaking authority and routine business; it’s an exquisite line reading. Graham may look over her shoulder afterward, but she’ll always stand her ground.

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The Shape of Water

Although set in Baltimore, in 1962, The Shape of Water has a Continental feel. It has that specifically French sensibility that Up had, embracing the absurd with a spring in its step, savoring the abyss like a nice pâté. In my opinion, the director, Guillermo del Toro, spreads it on a little thick; some of the elements don’t mix well. But, by and large, it’s engrossing. The film rides out its flaws on a wave of whimsy. It runs on the goofball charm that only a kid who grew up shipping Fay Wray from the original King Kong with the creature from the black lagoon would ever dare to muster.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) gets by in a demimonde of lost souls, a menagerie of otherness that consists of Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay artist neighbor; Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her protective and opinionated black co-worker at a research institute, where they work the night shift as housekeepers; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy. As an infant, Elisa’s voice box was torn out in an act of abuse; she acquires outcast status by being a mute. They’re all repressed, but only in the outside world: Elisa includes in her daily routine a little “self-care” in the tub. (As a period piece, Shape isn’t too credible, as this omen of sexual liberation adduces.) When the outside world barges in, it’s in the person of Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon). He delivers a captive to the institute: a merman played by Doug Jones.

Intellectually, it’s a clever idea to merge monster movies with fairy tales. In a sense, it was there all along: as early as King Kong’s obituary. But I think del Toro is juking social commentary out of drive-in pictures from the Nuclear Age, movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). (These films channeled anxieties so bluntly that it was less like subtext and more like propaganda.) It doesn’t take any media-studies courses to glean that del Toro’s intention is to show that Strickland is the real monster, and the baddest monster of them all is America’s obsession with conformism and upward mobility. This, more than the film’s influences or poetic distance, justifies the retrograde timeframe: upward mobility, identity, and income inequality are rather sore subjects in the America of 2018.

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This one’s a stretch. It’s been a year since I saw Moonlight, so this is less a review than a remembrance. And yet its impressions flooded back to me this morning, clear as the moon’s pull on the tides. In overarching terms, I think it’s slightly less consistent than my other favorite movie from 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s film was wrong for the political moment—far enough removed from contention that even Warren Beatty’s interns wouldn’t have slipped its name in the envelope. Honestly, though, the comparison is unfair: Manchester is a work of naturalism, operating under the established rules of tragedy; Moonlight is a tone poem. While the former sustains a mood, the latter resonates in an array of chords.

Let me first dispense with my criticisms. The arc of the screenplay, written by the director, Barry Jenkins, but originating from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical material—both artists are black and openly gay—rests a little heavily on certain liberal assumptions. We are shown Chiron through three successive phases of his young life. In each he’s played by a different actor (who was not given access to his colleagues’ performances).

What’s missing is the transition between Act II, when the tender teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) gets betrayed and takes vengeance on his bullies, and Act III, where he’s a thug (Trevante Rhodes) packing heat in Hotlanta. This is normally the connective tissue that tragedies serve as the meat: the space between Michael Corleone bumping off Sollozzo and decapitating all of his rivals. While it may not have been the filmmakers’ intention for us to view this rupture as a lacuna, it takes too long to locate the scrawny kid tucked between Rhodes’s triceps. Maybe the reference points I’m missing are meant to be filled in by black experience—by a logic I’m not privy to. That would be artistically questionable, if politically ambitious.

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Baby Driver

On the topic of idealized Americana, courtesy of our European cousins, is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which takes the low road to pimped-up rides and cheap cafés. It lacks the sophistication of Breathless, the elegance of Tarantino’s second-run Death Proof, or the snarky dynamism of Wright’s own Cornetto trilogy—but that’s like asking a Buick to be a Bugatti.

There’s a sweet aftertaste of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; the familiarity of their kinship, which complements Wright’s lucid exasperation, resides in the doe-eyed love affair between Ansel Elgort and Lily James (rather more in her than him). They play the sort of drifters that exist outside time and inside the old Warner Bros. vault. Baby fiddles with his iPods a little too much to make the car-chase scenes very memorable. At one point, there’s the promising suggestion of a getaway in a rain storm. When the clouds parted, however, my anticipation level slunk into the gutter.

Kevin Spacey is cool as the mob boss, but his change of heart doesn’t make much sense. (Perhaps it’s best to keep that guy away from jail-bait Baby.) In some ways, the final third is dramatically verklempt, but it’s engaging to watch how Wright, after a fling with the gruesome, snaps back with his moral compass. Hidden behind Baby’s badass shades is a sense of guilt and responsibility. Most of his peers, like Thelma and Louise, would sooner gun it off a cliff than get caught. Wright is a different kind of romantic.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a deeply flawed, at times idiotic, movie, and I can appreciate the backlash against it. And yet, hidden beneath all the mistakes and poor judgment calls is an aspirational, romantic fantasy about America, which I respected, as much as I can understand why others might reject it. I don’t think one can carve Frances McDormand’s blistering performance, which has been universally praised, out of the framework the director has put her in. Those who have responded positively to her Mildred Hayes are probably also responding to McDonagh’s idealized America, at least on some level.

At heart, this is a story of grief. You can lash out at its proxies but never quite land a punch on your target. That is what Mildred is doing with the billboards she rents, which bait the local police—the cancer-ridden Chief Willougby (Woody Harrelson) in particular—for never finding and bringing to justice the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

The backstory is muddy, as it gets tangled up in allegations that hayseed deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) beat up a black suspect in custody, and never suffered any consequences for it. However, despite it casting a pall over the police department, this incident seems to have nothing to do with their finding no leads in the Hayes case. The town’s sympathies are torn; people feel for Mildred because of her loss, but reproach her for casting aspersions on a dying, virtuous man. Harrelson, going back to territory he explored in The Messenger, is robust and reflective and unlikable-proof—though not to the degree that Willougby is an even remotely plausible husband for Abbie Cornish. Not only is she 20 years his junior, but we’re given no evidence that Ebbing would be a magnet for ravishing Welsh immigrants.

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