Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

One of the most surprisingly rewarding experiences I had at the cinema all last year was watching Bette Davis devour the scenery opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Davis is absolutely feral in that picture despite her regal drag, spending the entire runtime gobbling snacks & hurling vicious insults in intricately designed costumes. It’s fabulous. Returning months later to The Prytania Theatre to see Margot Robbie inhabit the same role in Mary Queen of Scots could only be a letdown, then, as she isn’t given free rein to behave monstrously the way Davis was. Robbie is fully capable of going big & going over-the-top; she also has no hesitancy to de-beautify herself in a role that’s basically Baby Jane Hudson clowning in a royal setting. As the title suggests, however, Mary Queen of Scots has a much smaller appetite for Queen Elizabeth vamping & camp than I, mostly sidelining Robbie’s raving monarch to focus on Saoirse Ronan’s fiery challenger to the throne instead. Elizabeth’s mental & emotional anguish are a background hum in the film rather than a ferocious roar, when her rivalry with Mary should have been evenly weighted on a titular level to save the film from costume drama tedium. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.

Part of the challenge in depicting the rivalry between Mary (Queen of Scotland) & Elizabeth (Queen of England) is that the two monarchs never met in person, exchanging most of their strategic blows through couriers & letters. The way this movie gets around that challenge is by just making shit up. In an outlandish climactic showdown, both queens meet privately in a rural laundry house to butt heads one final time – in a scene that’s one dove short of being a full-blown John Woo homage. They excuse this anachronism by saying “No one must ever know of this,” swearing themselves to secrecy. It’s a breach in historical accuracy that raises questions of why the film didn’t take even more liberties. Mary Queen of Scots wishes to modernize its tale of two quietly warring queendoms, but is also self-defeating in its timid anachronisms. It’s refreshingly inclusive in its onscreen representation politics, but it also relegates PoC characters to minor servile roles & treats queer sexuality as a death sentence. It openly depicts female sexual desire & cunnilingus in a way most buttoned-up costume dramas would normally shy away from, but the men who oblige those impulses are consistently such dastardly brutes that the entire affair is de-eroticized (and often outright sexually traumatic). Elizabeth is allowed to voice some Girl Power messaging in her choice to live a childless life “as a man” to maintain her throne, but is often depicted mourning her fading chances at motherhood as if it were the only role that could truly fulfill her. Mary Queen of Scots is stuck between period drama tradition & more flippantly modern, history-ignoring impulses; it likely would have been a better film had it pushed itself in either direction instead of hovering in tonal Limbo.

Mary Queen of Scots is a little too silly & preposterous to fully take seriously and yet not silly enough to excel as full-blown camp—a self-conflicted stasis that holds it back as a modern entertainment. Considered in isolation, Ronan’s narrative as the young, titular queen is a perfectly pleasing rise-to-power story of minor eroticism & political intrigue. It’s the exact kind of historical drama that feels custom-built to scoop up Best Costume Design Oscars (if you can see their gorgeous details through the overwhelming Prestige Picture artifice of the dialogue & score). The only problem is that it’s a narrative track that holds a much more interesting movie hostage. Every minute spent alone with Mary is a distraction from Elizabeth’s spectacular unraveling. Stray glimpses of Margot Robbie feverishly crafting in anger, swelling up with small pox, and dunking on the boneheaded men of her court are all welcome, microscopic tastes of the much more fun, rewarding movie that could have been if she were fully set loose. When Mary Queen of Scots allows its two queens to butt heads in a climactic John Woo showdown, it’s not failing its duties to historical accuracy; it’s finally openly being a fully realized version of itself, far too late in the runtime to make much difference. As is, this is a perfectly fine, pleasant-looking addition to the perfectly fine, visually pleasant costume drama tradition. It’s just difficult to not compare it to the over-the-top camp of The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex or the gleefully anachronistic, viscous rivalry of The Favourite and not leave the film wanting more. Margot Robbie was all dressed up for a no-holds-barred Baby Jane brawl, but was unfortunately chained to something much safer instead.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seagull (2018)

At first glance, it’s easy to see why the costume drama The Seagull is being undervalued in its early critical reception. A literary adaptation of an Anton Chekov play led mostly by women in period-specific costuming, this is the exact kind of stuffy-seeming costume drama that typifies most people’s perception of independent cinema, the kind of film festival fodder that lures elderly audiences into daytime-napping in public. However, The Seagull is only half the stately indie drama indicated by its Chekov stage play source material. Its other half is a surprisingly morbid, exquisitely bitchy comedy that laughs in the face of self-important, artsy fartsy types who would typically watch that more pretentious end of cinema in the first place. Saoirse Ronan anchors the genuinely dramatic end of that divide as an aspiring, vulnerable actress caught between the love & lustful whims of two playwrights. Annette Bening & Elisabeth Moss run wild & gnaw scenery on the morbidly humorous end, affecting the performative, comedically exaggerated femininity of a barroom drag act. Together, the trio transform The Seagull from minor prestige indie to slyly subversive comedy & meta-melodrama, an oddly delightful mix of femme-specific tones that deserves more critical respect than it’s ever going to get.

Annette Bening lords over the proceedings as a boastful matriarch (inviting a 19th Century Women pun I’m too clumsy to pull off) and a successful stage actress who demands 24/7 admiration from her family & fans. Her son is a depressive playwright who believes her craft is empty, pandering frivolity, as opposed to True Art. A lesser movie this stately in appearance might side with him, using his complaints that “The modern theatre is trite and riddled with clichés!” to comment on its own elevated place as true art in a cinematic landscape ruled by Transformers sequels & the MCU. Instead, his artistic idealism is satirized as being born of juvenile insecurities, especially in comparison to the much more successful playwright who is mother’s de facto concubine. This jealousy only deepens as the two playwrights struggle for the affections of the same hopelessly naïve muse (Ronan), while Bening & Moss (who is in love with the son) look on in horror. This he-loves-her-but-she-loves-another web of unrequited affections plays out in both perfect comedy & tragedy, equally balanced. Moss hovers between both ends with the most versatility, dressing as a widow because, as she explains it, “I’m in mourning . . . for my life.” Bening & Ronan are more constant in their demeanor (self-aggrandizing & hopelessly wide-eyed, respectively), as they allow a petty tug-of-war between two foolish, destructive men play out to an inevitably tragic end.

At its start, The Seagull feels artistically nondescript, as if anyone could have made it at any time. Early music cues even feel as if they were lifted from episodes of Downton Abbey. Its costumed soap opera stage setting eventually melts away, however, as the caustic relationships between its characters devolve into absurdist, playfully cruel humor (not to mention genuine, old-fashioned cruelty). Bening, Ronan, and Moss pull a minor miracle in transforming The Seagull into a must-watch subversive comedy that is not at all telegraphed by the film’s humble, lovelorn melodrama beginnings. Director Michael Mayer does his best to keep up with the trio, becoming increasingly daring in his framing & music choices as the stakes of the story increase and become more deranged. The cathartic emotional climax of the picture only works because of its performers, however, who sell the severity of this story’s cruelty, whether played for humor or genuine dramatic effect, with full, lasting impact. The Seagull is worth watching for those three performers alone, whether or not Chekov adaptations & stately costume dramas are your usual cup of tea. Here, the tea is boiling hot and surprisingly bitter, leaving the whole room laughing & fighting back tears in equal measure. It’s a shame it isn’t getting enough respect or attention for that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s debut feature as a writer-director (after several notable collaborations with eternal sourpuss Noah Baumbach) has quickly become something of a smash hit, even though it’s only screening in a few hundred theaters in its initial, slowly expanding release. Lady Bird currently has the highest per-theater average attendance for any film in 2017, which is remarkable for a work so formally & tonally unassuming. Essentially telling the story of a deeply flawed teen brat navigating her own newly-forming identity & impulses towards selfishness over the course of a single year, there isn’t much on the surface of Lady Bird that would suggest why it’s being watched & rewatched with such veracity and topping so many early drafts of Best of the Year lists. It’s when you get into the details of the picture that its resonation & mass appeal makes more sense. Having graduated from a Catholic high school my parents could barely afford in the early 00s, I felt as if the picture were made specifically for me. Growing up in Sacramento, California before moving away to the opposite end of the country at a young age, the person I watched the movie with more or less felt the same: Lady Bird was made specifically for them. I’ve been reading similar accounts in many of the film’s early, elated reviews as well. Obviously, not every single person who watches the picture is going to be able to personally relate to its characters & setting in that way, but Gerwig packs the picture with enough meticulously distinctive details that when you see a familiar location or sign of financial struggle or complicated relationship that reflects something in your own life, you’ll feel as if she made a film for you alone and no one else. I have to assume that personal recognition of individual details has to directly affect its apparent universality, as self-contradictory as that may sound.

Saoirse Ronan stars as a disenchanted high school senior “with a performative streak” who dreams of moving far away from her suburban home town of Sacramento as soon as she graduates. Like in many coming of age stories told in that framework, she mostly struggles with her self-identity and what horrors or pleasures her future might hold. She gives herself the alias “Lady Bird” as a pretentious expression of independence. She daydreams along with her theater kid peers of futures in romantic locales like Paris & New York. Her reality is much more limited than that fantasy suggests, a conflict that weighs heaviest on her relationship with her mother, an overworked psychiatric nurse played by Laurie Metcalf. Lady Bird rebels unnecessarily against many people & institutions who don’t deserve it: caring nuns, her best friend, her older brother, Sacramento as a concept. None are as giving or as frustrated with her as her mother, though, and the movie is just as much about the intricacies of their uneasy bond as it is about Lady Bird learning empathy & autonomy. The way they can argue bitterly about how money & class affect their status in the community in one breath and mutually break down over an audiobook in the next feels true to life, so it’s rewarding that there are no easy solutions or revelations within their dynamic as the movie wraps up its year-in-the-life plot. Lady Bird barrels through her final year under her mother’s & her Catholic high school’s roofs, hurting everyone in her path to escape like the clumsy teenage monster that she is (and we all were). Sometimes these wounds can be repaired. Sometimes the relationships remain fractured, but endure anyway. Mostly, Lady Bird dares to test every boundary she’s fenced within and (hopefully) learns who she is as a newly-formed person in the process of making many, many mistakes.

It’s initially difficult to pinpoint exactly what distinguishes Lady Bird as a high school comedy and Gerwig as a filmmaker, considering how many times this narrative has been told before. The recent coming of age sleeper The Edge of Seventeen already re-invigorated the high school teen comedy by being honest about how unlikable & flawed most people are at that age. There’s also major echoes of works like Rushmore & Ghost World that were actually released when Lady Bird was set in the early 00s (although with significantly cooler soundtracks; Lady Bird has a much worse taste in music than Enid or Max Fischer, hilariously so). Not all of Gerwig’s strengths as a filmmaker result from the intimate specificity of her writing, however. What’s most formally impressive about Lady Bird is not necessarily that it captures so many intimately specific moments of early 00s teen rites of passage (getting stoned & microwaving junk food to third wave ska, awkwardly slow dancing to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at a high school dance, ungodly awful theater auditions/exercises, etc.), but that they hit the screen so rapidly & with such confidence. Lady Bird is a feat in editing room craft, summarizing an entire, pivotal year in its protagonist’s life through deftly-detailed montage. The movie is resonating personally with so many individual audience members because it is so tightly packed with isolated images & exchanges in an onslaught of free flowing montages. The way time passes in these stretches plays both as a laugh-a-minute comedy and an emotionally devastating drama, especially when moments are unexpectedly cut short or drastically extended for emphasis. In one of the film’s more defining exchanges, Lady Bird pleads with her mother to break her angry silence in what feels like a scene pulled from a harshly acidic stage play, but is caught between two much lighter, brighter sequences of small-scale triumph. Lady Bird’s editing techniques are deceptively simplistic, but immensely impactful in summarizing an entire year in a life not yet fully-defined.

It’s by no means one of the flashier filmmaking feats of the year, but there’s a pretty solid chance that something (if not everything) in Lady Bird will resonate with you on a personal level. Although a massive number of people respond to the picture by insisting Gerwig made it specifically for them, they can’t all be wrong. She’s speaking to her audience on a distinctively personal level, especially on issues of teen identity exploration and familial struggles with selfishness & class. The rapid fire editing and believably genuine performances from Ronan & Metcalf only serve to drive that vision home and make room for a memorable, personalized emotional response. Lady Bird initially appears to be a continuation of a well-worn type of story we’ve all seen before, but once you’re immersed in its defining details, there’s something remarkably individualistic about it that worms its way into whatever’s left of your frustrated teenage heart.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving Vincent (2017)

It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.

In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.

Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.

-Brandon Ledet

Brooklyn (2015)

three star

When I first heard of Brooklyn‘s young-Irish-immigrant-tries-to-make-it-in-NYC premise I expected a Christ in Concrete or The Jungle type narrative set decades before in a time where the Irish & other immigrant communities were worked to death building NYC’s massive infrastructure & quickly discarded once the job was done. There’s a little bit of that history visible in Brooklyn‘s 1950’s setting, particularly in the film’s second-generation Irish-American communities & in the old men left homeless after their construction work dried up. Brooklyn is an entirely different kind of immigrant-story costume drama, though. Its protagonist, Eilis, has a relatively easy journey to the United States, with a remarkably large network of support helping her assimilate into a new land. After a prison-conditions, sea-sick ship ride across the ocean & a nervous encounter at customs, Eilis’ journey is less of a history of immigrant struggle in the New World & more of a traditional coming of age drama & chest-heaving romance.

The conflicts in Brooklyn are less life-threatening than they are emotionally troubling. Eilis struggles with severing family ties in her big move, petty jealousies among her boardinghouse mates, neighborhood gossip, the possibility of lifelong poverty, Catholic guilt, the pressures of rapid dating cycles (mentions of “I love you”s & children are almost instantaneous) and, of course, culture shock. The concerns are far from the grim trials & tribulations I had assumed she’d go through based on the film’s premise & from past films like last year’s The Immigrant. Besides a prudish shopkeeper & an overactive teenage libido, there isn’t much danger in Eilis’ life at all. She loses intimacy with the family & community she left behind in Ireland & they try to suck her back into their world, but for the most part her conflict is internal. Her love for a little James Franco-type Italian weirdo & her transition into a confident, autonomous woman are what drives the narrative, with nearly every other conflict falling into place seemingly without effort.

Saoirse Ronan is an incredibly gifted actor, a world class emoter, and she does as much as she can with Eilis’ torn-between-two-worlds inner-conflict, but it’s difficult to say if the low-stakes narrative she’s afforded is worthy of the quality of her performance. A couple other gifted, familiar faces, including Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré and Frank & Ex Machina‘s Domhnall Gleeson, check in for limited impact, all dressed up with nowhere special to go. The best chance Brooklyn has for finding a longterm audience is in fans of costume dramas & traditional romance plots built on yearning & the threatened development of love triangles. Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found the film entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.

-Brandon Ledet