Thursday, December 7, 2017

Movie Season Begins

Now that it gets dark at 4 p.m. rather than 8, and the studios begin to unfurl their Oscar contenders, the idea of going to the movies once again gains force. Here are two early birds, and a few summer winners.

Lady Bird
It's the story of a teenage girl in Sacramento, California,  self-named Lady Bird, who vaguely aspires to something better than the life her caring and dutiful middle-class parents have given her. She endures the daily routine at a Roman Catholic high school, gets excited when she's given a part in the class play, becomes involved romantically with the handsome lead actor, fights with her mother daily, and seems to get her greatest emotional satisfaction from hanging out with her best friend, Julie, a bright and extremely good-natured but chubby girl with no pretensions whatsoever to a glamorous life.

The film works because the episodes, one after another, are both humorous and believable. Lady Bird is willful, heedless, and occasionally cruel; she often goes after the wrong things. But the episodes seem to be events that might have happened, rather than contrived opportunities for pratfalls and embarrassing situations. In fact, the film seems like one real teenager's coming-of-age story, and it would be reasonable to assume that the woman is Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film.

Whatever the case may be, the dialog is crisp, the parental pain excruciating, the flow of events unpredictable, the end-result satisfying. Saoirse Ronan is perfect in the title role—though it's quite different from the one she played in Brooklyn. [Spoiler alert: No pregnancies, drug overdoses, or car crashes.}

Lady Bird might be considered as a prequel to Frances, Ha!, which Gerwig co-wrote and also stars in. They'd make a good double feature.

The Meyerowitz Stories      
Here we have a second dialog-driven family comedy-drama, this one about adults, and set on the opposite coast. The focus in on half-brothers—played by Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler—who are trying to sort out their strained relationship in the context of a family environment shaped by the overarching presence of their father, the family patriarch, played by Dustin Hoffman. A largely forgotten sculptor, he was once considered promising but spent most of his professional career teaching, yet he still nourishes a grand self-image. His third wife (Emma Thompson) is an agreeable lush.

 Stiller dropped the artistic vein and became a successful real estate broker in L. A.; Sandler never got around to doing much of anything, though it's obvious he's a caring father. Yes, there's a granddaughter in the mix, on her way to college, and also a third sibling—a dutiful sister. The situations are geared more toward comedy than angst, and we pick up pieces of the puzzle one by one during conversations with gallery owners, former wives, former students, and former artistic rivals who have now made it big.

Hoffman is a little brittle, but Sandler is surprisingly good. It's great family chaos, skeletons in the closet, unshakeable misunderstandings, East Coast fun.


A Finnish film that translates as "Unexpected Journey," Saattokeikka bears comparison to the popular A Man Called Ove, in that a grumpy octogenarian's world is opened up slightly by a youthful and seemingly naive foreigner. The old-timer, Veikko, is played by Heikki Nousiainen, whom you may remember as the blind priest in Letters to Father Jacob. He can't stand the African music being played on the basketball court outside his apartment building, which is mostly inhabited by immigrants and refugees, but he eventually finds himself in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a local "Somali" lad named Kamil. The young man is actually from Nigeria, and he doesn't own the car, but he wants to earn money to reunite with his dad, so he agrees to take Veikko to his remote rural cottage for a large sum of cash. Thus yet another classic odd-couple road trip commences, full of laughs, pine woods, freezing lakes, romance, family reckoning, and pathos.
And while we're on the subject of films, I might mention two summer releases that will soon be available to stream, if they aren't already.

The Big Sick    

A Pakistani comedian falls for a winsome blonde in the audience at a comedy club. He never gets around to telling her that his parents are adamant about him marrying a woman from his own country. Difficulties ensue. But the continuing humor and interest in the film comes from the comic's interactions with his ex-girlfriend's parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) when she gets sick.


It tells the unusual (but largely true) story of a woman with spinal deformities named Maudie (played by Sally Hawkins, whom you may remember from Happy Go Lucky)  who becomes the housekeeper of a gruff woodcutter and fish salesman named Everett (played by Ethan Hawk). It shouldn't be such a tough job; his house is only 11 x 11 feet square. Maudie soon starts painting images on the walls in her free time. 

Before long her little cardboard images have become popular, to Everett's irritation. Her rising fame in the art world provides the meat of the story, but it's the ever changing relationship between Maudie and Everett that holds our interest. Along with the rural Nova Scotia countryside.

Not long after seeing the film, I went to a exhibition at the Swedish Institute at which paintings from the opposite end of the art spectrum were on display. Where Maudie's work is näive, the paintings of Karin Broos are highly realistic. Maudie paints cats and flowers; Broos paints troubled, anxious women, often in the company of their daughters.

There is no need for us to choose between the two. In the end, maybe neither aesthetic is completely satisfying. Perhaps both are. And maybe no aesthetic is completely suitable to every passing mood or condition. In any case, I find the contrast in tone interesting.

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