Menashe

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* * *

Telling a seemingly straightforward story with modest resources, Menashe is most fascinating as an ethnographic excursion. For many of us, the tight-knit Hasidic communities cocooned within certain neighborhoods around the world are mysterious and essentially impenetrable. Director Joshua Z Weinstein has set his tale of a widower, Menashe, who longs to take custody of his son back from his brother-in-law, in one of them – Borough Park, in Brooklyn – and cast actual Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in all of the roles, having them speak in Yiddish.

This is where modesty gives way to wild ambition. The talent pool from which Weinstein was casting had, almost to a person, never seen a movie. They lived in communities devoid of radio, let alone TV, cinema, smartphones or the internet. Let alone getting performances out of them, Weinstein had to explain to them the nature of movies, and get them to perform for his at great personal risk; as Weinstein says in his notes, “These individuals may be intimidated to leave their homes, fired from their jobs, and even lose custody of their children.”

How in the world he pulled it off is anyone’s guess, but in doing so, he has crafted a small tale of beauty, sadness and undeniable fascination. Watching Menashe (played superbly by Menashe Lustig, whose real story inspired that of the film) go about his daily life within his community is intriguing enough; the challenges the plot hurls at him are moving but, for those of us who don’t live in Hasidic communities, almost incidental. In a way, the film is a kind of documentary hybrid; we’re seeing a story, but what we’re really watching is the milieu, which has never been depicted on film before with this veracity.

Lady Bird

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* * * *

It’s been terrific to watch, and be surprised by, Greta Gerwig’s evolution as a film artist. Having missed her entire early career as the leading lady of the mumblecore movement from 2006 to 2011, I finally became aware of her goofy charms in Greenberg (2010). For a while, I frankly thought she was a one-trick pony, her voice and physicality being so distinctive and consistent across the next few of her films that she seemed destined to play variations of herself. But then her craft seemed to expand, and in roles like Abbie in 20th Century Women (2016) she revealed greater depth of characterization. Indeed, in a film full of great actresses, for me she stole that show.

Meanwhile, her writing developed alongside. She co-wrote the lovely, humble Frances Ha (2012) with her paramour Noah Baumbach, and then did so again, more ecstatically, with the razor-sharp, truly witty Mistress America (2015). Now, she journeys solo as a writer, and directs, with the sublime Lady Bird, and in doing so gives us her origin story.

The film is billed as “semi-autobiographical,” but it’s so full of precise – and off-beat – observations that I’m taking it as pretty close to her real life. In fact, it’s so personal that the final lines of the film feel like they’re intended for an audience of one (while not actually excluding the rest of us, no mean feat). It covers the final year in the Catholic High School career of Gerwig’s surrogate, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated), taking in her relationships with boys, her best friend, her teachers (including the nuns), her family and, most vitally, her mother (Laurie Metcalf, nominated in the Supporting category).

The script is fantastic – smart, witty, revealing, precise, and concise. Gerwig and Baumbach pulled off something tricky with the script of Mistress America, constructing the third act as one continuous set-piece in the vein of a theatrical farce, but Gerwig goes in the opposite direction here, keeping every scene surprisingly brief. Blink and you’ll miss one; go for a wee and you’ll miss three. Thankfully you shouldn’t have to; in keeping with the speedy vibe, the whole shebang is over in 94 minutes.

I could have watched it for days. Ronan is staggeringly charming and appealing, even when Lady Bird is not. There is absolutely an element of Gerwig in her performance, specifically in her physical mannerisms, a kind of shaking of the lower face that was a hallmark of Gerwig’s, at least from 2010 to 2015. Metcalf is solid and real, and there is an exciting find in Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s bestie Julie. Her character has an entire, intriguing arc, not all of which we’re privy to; Gerwig leaves its darker elements off-screen, as though Lady Bird / Gerwig didn’t hear the whole story until after this story ended.

My experience of the film was light, delightful, airy and droll, but I think that the closer you yourself are to Lady Bird the more the film’s heavier, darker notes will resonate. If you’re a young woman with a mother and a Catholic School education, you’ve almost certainly found, in this beautiful film, your Catcher In The Rye, your Rushmore, your Sixteen Candles, your Juno, your origin story.

Happy End

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* * * *

Michael Haneke can be funny, and his latest feature, Happy End, is an actual comedy, albeit of the driest, blackest kind. It certainly ends on a brilliant gag, one that caps off the entire film like a perfect punchline, and which, I’m sure, has Haneke giggling on the inside: “See? I gave you a happy end!”

This isn’t his only joke on us. His bigger one is that Happy End is, amazingly, a sequel to Amour (2012), which, if you remember the deep sadness of that film, represents a tonal / genre shift on the scale of Aliens and Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.

Of course, happiness is not the dominant mood amongst the characters of any Haneke film, and so it isn’t here. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), having lost his wife in Amour and now confined to a wheelchair and struggling with the onset of dementia himself, is done with this thing called life. His big, beautiful house in Calais is filled with his kids Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas (Mathieu Kossovitz), who are having problems with their own kids, and the family business is in trouble. Meanwhile, the streets of Calais are filling with refugees. For myriad reasons, and despite the trappings of wealth, everyone in the family is struggling.

They’re selling Happy End as a satire of the bourgeois, and that works as well as anything, although they might have tried pushing the wacky old man trying to off himself a little more and gone for the 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared crowd. Haneke’s audience will come as a matter of course and they won’t be disappointed. As other critics have noted, Happy End feels a little like a greatest hits album, with many of Haneke’s thematic concerns and directorial flourishes fully present. The more you know his work, the more you’ll enjoy this one, because the more you’ll get the inside jokes. The opening shot is brilliantly witty, but it’s downright piquant if you’ve seen Caché.

Phantom Thread

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* * * * * (out of five)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, nominated for six Oscars, is a masterpiece – his second, in my opinion, alongside Boogie Nights. Besides their brilliance and mastery of craft, finding connective tissue between the two is tricky, which is further testament to Anderson’s brilliance. The depth of his palette is astonishing.

Working again with Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, which is an incredible film and which, for many, also deserves the ‘masterpiece’ title), Anderson creates yet another deeply layered portrait of a driven man, but this time adds a complementary woman, and delivers not a film about ambition, pride or hubris – though all those themes are represented – but about the greatest mystery of all, love, and the most mysterious human construct of all, marriage. It is also a mesmerising hothouse thriller, the best film Hitchcock never made.

The woman is played by Vicky Krieps, Luxembourg’s most prominent actress (!). Her performance is astoundingly good – the bulk of the film’s scenes are two-handers with Day-Lewis, with whom she completely holds her own – and it’s reflective of nothing save her anonymity to most academy members that she’s not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Day-Lewis, of course, is nominated, as is Lesley Manville for Best Supporting Actress. She plays Day-Lewis’s sister, and when you see the film, you’ll see why there’s so much buzz about her performance. It’s one for the books.

The multiple thoughts, contradictions and emotions these actors are allowed to display under Anderson’s own watchful eye – it’s his first feature as a cinematographer – are mind-boggling in their multitude. Normally an actor, in any given close-up, gives us a single thing – a reaction, a decision, an emotion. Anderson’s cast will give us multiple combinations in a single shot. In particular, every time Krieps’ character Alma is dressed by her famous designer partner, a universe of complex, contradictory feeling traverses her brain, and we’re privy to it all, silently but unambiguously. This is great acting, great direction, great cinematography, from a great script. It is peak motion picture artistry.

Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous, lush score is allowed to be a character of its own, hugely present throughout, and, like every element of the film, enormously disciplined, precise, and bold. It matches the film’s two main locations, a house in London and a house in the Cotswalds, both of which we know intimately by film’s end, and both of which contribute endless richness to the story. Remarkably, both are real houses and the production actually shot in both; the London location, a Georgian townhouse in Fitzrovia, was, by all accounts, extremely challenging to shoot in due to the confined quarters, the size of the crew, and its stairs, but the authenticity it provides is undeniably, desirably tangible. Incidentally, it’s also on the market for fifteen million quid.

Supposedly, by his own proclamation, this is Day-Lewis’ last film as an actor. What a perfect vehicle to ride out on. Wearing no prosthetics, speaking in his native British accent (his first in a film since 1985’s A Room With A View!), shooting in the city of his birth, he looks entirely at ease doing the hardest job in show business: living up to his own reputation. He thoroughly succeeds.

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Jane

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* * * *

Jane, the new documentary from Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture, Montage of Heck) is, more than anything, and like a lot of Morgen’s work, a pretty jaw-dropping feat of post-production. Working from 100 hours of once-thought-lost, recently (2014) found footage shot by the giant of wildlife cinematography Hugo Van Lawick, Morgen constructs a portrait of anthropologist Jane Goodall that has a surprising narrative drive.

The footage is astonishing: crisp, vibrant, immediate and beautifully framed. Van Lawick, while making the rules of wildlife filmmaking up as he went along, knew what he was doing. He not only captures the African region of Gombe and its chimpanzees with beauty and feeling, he does the same with Goodall, and it’s no surprise, seeing the way he shoots her, that he also ended up proposing to her.

She is certainly a magnetic, rather incredible, subject. Willowy and impenetrably calm, Goodall interacts with the chimpanzees she studies with an ease most human mothers can’t show their human children. Her thousand-mile stare as she watches an African sunset displays that ultimate and, for most of us, unreachable goal: the true peace of one who is doing exactly what they know they were put on this earth to do.

Morgen edits the footage to shape the narrative of Goodall’s career, rather than in the order it was shot. Thus, we are able to see Goodall in Gombe, through Van Lawick’s lens, well before Van Lawick actually arrives to film her. It’s a neat trick but worth knowing before you watch the film, lest, as I was, you spend too long wondering “Who shot this footage if no-one else is there?” Likewise, I assume that Morgen essentially started the soundtrack from scratch, as it is too perfectly continuous to have come from the original footage (indeed, I suspect Van Lawick was often shooting silently.

A lot of folk are up in arms that Jane is not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the 2018 Oscars. The answer may lie in a perception of the limitations of Morgen’s art; really, this is Van Lawick’s film as much as, if not vastly more than, his, and in many ways, Van Lawick becomes as central a figure as Goodall, even if he’s mainly hidden on the other side of the lens.

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