Sunday, November 26, 2017

LADY BIRD (2017): Coming-of-Age Story

Considering how many bad coming of age stories exist in the film industry, Lady Bird is comparably refreshing.  It’s short at 93 minutes.  The two main leads, Saoirse Ronan, as the daughter Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion the mother, are genuine human beings rather than caricatures.  Their arguments and struggles as well as begrudged affection for each other does not come across as affected.  And the movie overall is not ham-handed or cynical like the typical coming-of-age film.  It’s not perfect, either.

Lady Bird is in her senior year of attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, and hopes to attend college at an eastern school.  A few things are getting in her way, however.  Her family is not rich.  Lady Bird’s grades are insufficient.  And most importantly, her mother is opposed to her going east.

In the meantime, Lady Bird mildly rebels against the Catholic school she attends, but never to the point where she rejects its authority.  She has her first sexual encounter during her senior year, smokes cigarettes and occasionally smokes marijuana, and fights and makes up with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  She has two boyfriends during the film.  One is Danny (Lucas Hedges), a seemingly honest and innocent boy who we discover, in the most contrived manner, is gay.  The other boyfriend, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), deflowers Lady Bird only to reveal afterwards he’s been with a number of girls before.  Frankly, Kyle was not a necessary character in the film.

The only important relationship in the entire film is between Lady Bird and her mother.  The mother and daughter cry together, fight and almost always in the end makeup. Lady Bird’s affectionate father, Larry (Tracy Letts) mostly remains in the background and has little impact in pacifying the strong wills of his wife and daughter.  Sometimes the mother and daughter badly hurt each other, and the hurt never entirely goes away – even when Lady Bird finally receives acceptance to a college in New York.  Bored and frustrated with Sacramento, Lady Bird’s relationship with the city is similar to that with her mother (the symbolism is a bit forced). 

To listen to certain reviewers, you would think such a film is something never seen before.  It makes one nervous hearing terms such as honest and special and lovely and warm loosely thrown around like we’ve run out of other verbs or adverbs or adjectives to describe the film.  None of these superlatives are particularly precise.  Probably the most accurate review I read described the film as self-conscious while redeemed by the acting of Ronan and Metcalf.  It went on to label Greta Gerwig’s directing style as “stiff and mannered.”  (

I liked Lady Bird probably as much as any film in this kind of genre.  That’s not saying all that much.  But when the mother and daughter characters are on screen together, the film is powerful.  These scenes come close to making the viewer uncomfortable and help us appreciate the difficulties families go through when adolescent children are present.  The script also treats these difficulties with great care.  Without that mother/daughter relationship, the film would not be unique.  With the exception of Larry and Julie, none of the other characters in the film come even close to full development.  And very few scenes where the two main characters are not together leave any lasting impression.

As many reviewers point out (and without maybe even being aware of what they are saying), there was nothing groundbreaking in this film.  I have difficulty believing we will remember this film in a few years.   Hopefully, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf will go on to play other roles in the future that helps us remember them better.  The credit for any value of this film should go all to them.

November 25, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, October 30, 2017

THE HUSTLER (1961): Pool Room Drama

At 135 minutes, The Hustler, filmed in black and white, resembles a move from the 1930s or 1940s in all of its grittiness.  It also resembles more modern films that are always trying to say something more by giving us an ambiguous leading character.  But unlike those same films, The Hustler succeeds in accomplishing that feat. 

Directed by Robert Rossen, this movie includes top performances by Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, George C. Scott as the villainous Bert Gordon, Jackie Gleason as pool shark Minnesota Fats, and Piper Laurie as the emotionally fragile Sarah.

Eddie comes to Ames, Iowa, with his longtime partner, Charlie, to take on the legendary Minnesota Fats in a marathon pool contest.  Eddie at first has the upper hand on Fats and is up at one point close to $18,000.  This doesn’t last, however.  Soon Eddie, full of liquor and his own conceit, then begins to lose all of the money he has so far won.  When it appears Eddie has no money left, Fats leaves the pool hall.

The loss to Minnesota Fats haunts Eddie.  So badly does he want to revenge this loss that he abandons Charlie in a hotel room, and he tries to set out on his own to pick up extra cash.  The result is fairly predictable.  He can’t find good prospects to hustle, and eventually he ends up in a poolroom in the rough side of town where he gets his thumbs broken.

At about this time, Eddie involves himself with Sarah, an alcoholic supported by her rich father.  Though both Eddie and Sarah are dealing with their own demons, they do actually love each other.  More disastrously, Eddie involves himself with Bert, a big time promoter and gambler.  Bert cares nothing about Eddie or Sarah.  He only likes money and action.  Yet Bert is the only one willing to bankroll Eddie in his quest to once again play against Minnesota Fats.

Eventually Eddie, Sarah and Bert end up in Louisville, where Eddie is set up to play a rich billiards player.  Eddie has never played three-cushion billiards before (he only knows pool), but in the end he manages to win.  However, he only does so by begging Bert for money and telling Sarah to leave him alone.  Bert then returns to the hotel where Sarah is staying at, seduces her, and she in turns commits suicide.

With $3,000 to his name after his victory in billiards in Louisville, Eddie then returns to Ames, plays Minnesota Fats and comes out victorious.  The victory is, of course, a hallow one due to the loss of Sarah.  Also, his refusal to pay Bert any percentage of his winnings from Minnesota Fats leads to the banning of Eddie from ever playing in a big-time pool hall again.

The Hustler is an almost unbearably sad film.  In the end, only Eddie, Sarah and Minnesota Fats appear to have any human qualities.  Sarah dies.  Eddie is condemned to never play again the game he is so good at.  And Minnesota Fats is destined to have to associate with someone like Bert Gordon.  Yet unlike Bert, the three generate what we would call real emotion and live real lives – not at the expense of others.

There was a sequel to The Hustler made in 1986 called The Color of Money.  It certainly wasn’t the worst sequel ever made, and it was a better than average movie.  It just never matched The Hustler in quality filmmaking.  The Hustler is a film that is unusually exceptional on various levels.  The pool scenes between Fats and Eddie are entertaining in themselves.  Also, the pool game and Eddie’s development as a pool player is largely symbolic of Eddie’s development of character.  The term “character” is uttered several instances throughout the movie.  Finally, The Hustler is a well-told story of someone coming of age.  Eddie matures during the course of the film.  Sadly, it is too late when he realizes just how much he loses in growing up.

October 30, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, August 28, 2017

A SOLDIER’S STORY (1984): Story Concerning Black Soldiers

With race relations still always the subject of news stories, I thought about the movie, A Soldier’s Story, filmed over thirty years ago. Like Fences, also featuring Denzel Washington, A Soldier’s Story originally was a play and even on film makes viewing feel like one is watching a play.  Being only 101 minutes in length with the average film today going well over two hours, I’d say that this is refreshing.

A Soldier’s Story is a murder mystery.  It concerns the killing of a black sergeant, Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar), at a Louisiana army base during 1944.  Though a series of flashbacks we learn how the killing occurred.  At first everyone suspects white soldiers committed the deed – the murder occurring in the Deep South.  But subsequent investigation by a black officer and lawyer, Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), eventually demonstrates that the murderer was one of the sergeant’s own men.

Waters is a tyrant when it comes to leading his platoon.  He is deeply ashamed of the humiliation he as a black soldier faces, and wants to prove to his white officers that a black soldier has the discipline to fight in the war in Europe.  Any soldier who does not live up to his exacting standards he demotes or tries to force out of his unit.  In one particular case, Waters’ tactics get a soldier, C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), sent to the brig. Unable to withstand the confinement or the unjust accusations that Waters brings, C.J. eventually commits suicide.

This leads to the final confrontation between Waters and Private Peterson (Denzel Washington).  Peterson appears to be the only one in the platoon who can stand up to Waters’ bullying.  At one point he even takes Waters on in a bare-fisted fight only to come out on the losing end due to the dirty fight tactics that Waters uses.  Yet Waters secretly admires Peterson for his willingness to fight back and even wants to promote him.  Peterson, on the other hand, hates everything about his sergeant.

After C.J.’s suicide, Waters begins coming to the conclusion that no matter what he does, the white officers he serves will never respect him.  This leads to him drinking more and becoming even more sullen.  One evening, drunk and returning to town, Waters berates a couple of white patrol officers.  The patrol officers in turn beat Waters up.  Peterson, while out walking with another black soldier, discovers Waters lying by the side of the road.  Waters tells Peterson that no matter what a black soldier does, the white man will still hate him.  Peterson has no sympathy for his sergeant and instead shoots him.  Peterson, in his own way, is like Waters due to his willingness to harshly judge the character of another black man.

There is almost too much understatement in A Soldier’s Story with the exception of the acting of Adolph Caesar.  Caesar is almost the entire show.  Yet the movie is also a thoughtful film demonstrating not only the strained relations between black and white individuals, but also showing the tension that exists between blacks and other blacks.  Knowing the conditions black have faced through American history, such tension is understandable.
Director Norman Jewison has shown a willingness to take on films with race as a theme throughout his long movie career.  Most notably, this includes directing In the Heat of the Night released in 1967.  To his credit, Jewison never seems concerned about having a low budget.  In fact, he makes up for budgetary constraints by letting the dialogue tell the story and filming in locations such as bars and army barracks rather than providing dramatic scenery.

In a time where honest discussion concerning almost any issue is out of the question, it would be good if there were more films like A Soldier’s Story.  Such films will probably not come out of Hollywood, however, where storytelling resolves around special effects and every blockbuster appears to be a sequel.

August 28, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

FENCES (2016): Desperate Lives and Hopes

Probably most of us started off with great dreams only to see them dashed at some point or another.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine what a black man approaching the age of fifty must reflect when raising his family in a large metropolitan area back during the 1950s.  The plot of Fences centers upon such a character, and for the most part tells the story honestly.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man during this period in Pittsburgh.  Troy grew up in the south and moved north to escape his abusive father.  At one time he was a promising baseball player, but his baseball days faced interruption due to a stint in prison.  And by the time he got out, he was too old to play in the big leagues which will only then beginning to recruit black talent.

Troy in some senses is like a Walter Mitty character.  He often makes up the stories he tells for the amusement of others, but there are instances when he seemingly believes what he is saying.  And because he believes his own lies, he can never truly apologize for his mistakes.  On the other hand, he is a realist understanding that he is going to pay a great price for the mistakes he does make.

Troy has a wife and two sons.  As the film begins, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) has been married to him for eighteen years.  Rose is used to Troy’s antics and loves him deeply.  Troy, in his own way, loves Rose in return, but that does not prevent him from having an affair with another woman resulting in this woman becoming pregnant.  The woman that Troy had the affair with dies in childbirth after delivering a healthy daughter named Raynell.  Troy convinces Rose to help him raise the young girl.

Troy also has a brother named Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who Troy deeply cares for.  Gabe suffered head injuries during the war which leave him extremely simple in the mind.  Troy for the most part does what he can to help Gabe out.

The two sons, on the other hand, are ambivalent in their attitudes towards their father.  Both respect him greatly, but both also fear him because Troy can be a hard man.  Lyons (Russell Hornsby) was born to another woman Troy knew before he went to prison.  Whenever Lyons comes to visit the family, Troy rightly guesses that he is there only to borrow money. 

Troy’s relationship with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is much more complex.  Cory is in high school and shows promise as a football player.  Troy is not supportive of Cory playing football and instead insists that he find a job and work for his money.  Troy appears unable to show affection for his youngest son, despite the son doing very little wrong.  Yet Troy constantly demands that Cory show him the ultimate respect.  Troy challenges his youngest son, and sometimes the challenges border on bullying.

Troy dies of a heart attack while swinging at the baseball he attached to the end of a rope.  Throughout the movie, he swung at the baseball as if to take out his frustrations regarding his thwarted dreams.  Raynell by then is around five-years-old.  Rose lovingly looks after her.  Lyons is facing imprisonment for passing bad checks.  Cory is by then a member of the marines long after having a falling out with his father.

It is an intense film much like a prior film Washington starred in called A Soldier’s Story.  And while Fences consists almost exclusively of a black cast, it symbolizes the plight of almost every man frustrated by what life provides.  The confrontational scenes Troy has with his sons are particularly effective because the lessons he teaches are not always pleasant ones.

It’s obvious to anyone seeing the film that it was based on a play – a play by August Wilson.  Sometimes plays do not always translate well into film, and this occasionally occurs in Fences.  Troy’s occasional references about demons and death would probably come off better on the stage.  And the ending of this film with the remaining characters looking up at the sky while the sun peaks through the clouds is forced symbolism.

Like its chief character, the 138-minute film contains both greatness and significant flaws.  With the exception of the acting of Viola Davis, the film is for the most part a one-man show starring the film’s director, Denzel Washington.  Through the acting of its main star, there is seldom a single moment you do not see the character’s drive and spirit.  The personalities of the two sons are never fully developed and are mainly present to playoff of Washington’s role.  The character of Gabe provides some pathos as well as comic relief.  Rose is the only character in the film that truly has the gumption to oppose Troy in anything.

Yet as Rose mentions towards the film’s end, Troy is in so many respects a big man.  While he limits himself by his inability to always see the truth (thus the film name Fences), he also drives himself.  There are only a few instances where he feels sorry for himself, and this never lasts long.  He lives with the consequences of his actions, and he does his best to pay his own way.

July 30, 2017
© Robert S. Miller 2017