Lady Bird

(USA 2017)

“You should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.”

— Marion McPherson

“Lady Bird always says that she lives in on the wrong side of the tracks, but I always thought that that was like a metaphor, but there are actual train tracks.”

— Danny

“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

— Kyle

Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig’s first time directing; she codirected an earlier film, Nights and Weekends, in 2008. I never heard of that one. However, Lady Bird is her first solo gig, as well as her first hit. I wanted to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was impossible to get tickets.

I’ve now seen it in its commercial release. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, an angsty, unpopular, and rather nerdy but self-assured Catholic high school senior who’s christened herself “Lady Bird.” She lives in a modest home literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her parents, her underachiever older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who graduated from a “good” university but still works as a cashier in a grocery store, and his wife (Marielle Scott).

Christine wants a bigger life than the one she has in Sacramento, and she plans to get it by going away to college. Her perpetually crabby mother (Laurie Metcalf) is not exactly supportive, and her disposition gets worse when her father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Set in 2002, Lady Bird is a string of funny and touching episodes about growing up in a lower middle class Catholic home: sex, fitting in, rebellion, and of course Catholicism. I laughed out loud, and did so a lot. Gerwig wrote and directed it, and it’s a solid film even it rings a little familiar. She’s more observant of her characters’ behavior than creating some big dramatic experience. Lady Bird is structured like a lot of teen comedies I’ve seen before, but the acting is good enough to elevate it to a higher level and make it a bit more interesting. More adult, too.

As some friends have pointed out, the main character — Christine — is a refreshing break from the Hollywood archetype of a teenage girl we’ve all seen for more than 30 years now: she’s not a mean girl, a witch, or a slut. This is true, and a big plus here. Still, as much as I enjoyed Lady Bird, I don’t get the awards buzz over it.

With Danny O’Neill, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, John Karna, Jake McDorman, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano, Fr. Paul Keller, Myra Turley, Bob Stephenson, Joan Patricia O’Neill, Carla Valentine, Roman Arabia

Production: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Elevation Pictures (Canada), United International Pictures (UIP) (international), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://ladybird.movie

Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre]

(France / Italy 1961)

When young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) bursts into a confessional and tells the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” it’s pretty clear that director Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t going easy on us. For awhile, it’s not clear where he’s going at all with Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre], a moody work that percolates with repressed sexuality while it dives into religion, philosophy, and politics.

The story, based on Béatrix Beck’s novel and set in a tiny town somewhere in the French Alps during the Italian occupation right before the Nazis took over, centers on Barny as her relationship with Fr. Morin develops and intensifies. She reveals that she’s a communist militant, possibly a lesbian, and Jewish by injection (i.e., her dead husband was a Jew). She tries to provoke him with her jabs at the Catholic Church, but Fr. Morin’s responses are measured and considered. She’s seduced.

It looks like something sexual is going to happen between them: he’s young and handsome, and she’s been without a man for so long that she’s lusting after a female coworker (Nicole Mirel). Once the two are alone behind the closed door of Fr. Morin’s office in a church tower, it happens: they engage in…discourse, discussing the tenets of Catholicism.

Léon Morin, Priest is low on action and heavy on dialogue, and as a result it often feels lethargic. All of the “important” discussions — the ones that advance the plot, anyway — occur in one room, which does nothing to accelerate the pace. The discussions involve dry topics like theology and philosophy and religious dogma.

However, Melville keeps it interesting with what’s going on in the background: he’s brutally frank about the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism, the lackadaisical Italian soldiers, and the callous efficiency of the Nazis. Riva and Belmondo smoulder, though the former’s performance is far more compelling. Amid the hasty baptisms of children and the desperate hiding of neighbors is the curiously amusing subplot about Fr. Morin having all the women of the village spellbound. It’s a light touch in an otherwise heavy film.

With Irène Tunc, Gisèle Grimm, Marco Behar, Monique Bertho, Marc Heyraud, Nina Grégoire, Monique Hennessy, Edith Loria, Micheline Schererre, Renée Liques, Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand

Production: Georges de Beauregard, Concordia Compagnia Cinematografica, Carlo Ponti

Distribution: Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Cineriz (Italy), Eurooppalainen Filmi (Finland), Rialto Pictures (USA)

130 minutes (restored version)
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Silence

(USA 2016)

“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

—Fr. Rodrigues

Just as main character Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is conflicted about his faith, I’m conflicted about Martin Scorsese’s current project, Silence. This film is clearly a labor of love and something extremely personal, both of which I greatly respect. Its genesis dates back nearly 30 years to the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ—can there be a more fitting starting point?—when Scorsese read Shusaku Endo’s novel (the title is the same as the movie) about Jesuit missionaries and Catholicism in Japan in the 17th Century (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/11/27/magazine/the-passion-of-martin-scorsese.html?_r=0&referer=https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/martin-scorsese-silence-theology-art-jesuits/510827/ ). Having a Jesuit education myself, the nuance of what drives the characters (i.e., the service-oriented “men for others” philosophy of the Society of Jesus and the desire to make the right decisions and find answers) is not lost on me.

Momentary diversion: I was simultaneously amused and wowed by the number of nuns and priests in attendance at the pre-opening screening that I attended. I say “amused” because the audience looked like a Catholic J. Crew catalog; and I say “wowed” because the turnout served as a testament to the weight of this film. I felt it, and it was heavy. Credible. Plus, what does it say that a lapsed Catholic like me shows up for the pre-opening screening of a religious film as if it were a release party for a new Madonna album? More conflict.

But I digress. Silence follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests—the aforementioned Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver)—on their search to find their spiritual teacher and mentor, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing in Japan. The Japanese state has banned Christianity: those who practice it are hunted down by a committee, tortured, and killed. There’s an easy way out, weird as it is, that involves stepping on Catholic icons. Unsettling rumors have come to light concerning Fr. Ferreira, the most troubling of which is that he renounced Catholicism.

Silence is a gorgeous film—Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is breathtaking. I can feel every fly and bead of sweat I see on the screen. The idea of pushing “What Would Jesus Do?” to its mindfucking extreme is absolutely brilliant. The acting is generally flawless, but Issei Ogata easily shines lightyears beyond everyone else as the surprisingly unarresting, pragmatic, and understanding Inquisitor. Scorcese does a beautiful job demonstrating two timely ideas: tolerance is crucial for any civilized society, and doubt is totally normal. Can I get an amen? All that said, however, Silence is gratuitous in length, tedious, and exhausting. Painfully boring at points, even. The narration drove me crazy after awhile, as did the subpar Portugese accents. The ending is emotionally brutal; it’s ultimately satisfying, but you have to look closely and you have to be thinking. Normally, this wouldn’t be something worth mentioning; but at the end of such an energy zapper as Silence, it’s just not what I was prepared to do. I love what Scorcese gets at here; he does it artfully for sure, but I wish he had gone about it in a more direct and interesting way.

Also starring Ciarán Hinds, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, and Yôsuke Kubozuka.

Produced by Sharpsword Films, AI Film, CatchPlay, IM Global, Verdi Productions, YLK Sikella, and Fábrica de Cine

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

161 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C+

http://www.silencemovie.com

Multiple Maniacs

(USA 1970)

“I can only take so much of this kind of talk, especially from common lesbians.”

—Bonnie

‘Cheap,’ ‘campy,’ and ‘scandalous’ are all words that accurately describe the work of John Waters—his early stuff, anyway. No one makes depravity as fun or funny as he does. Multiple Maniacs, his second feature-length film, is unmistakable Waters: it’s a twisted and revolting mess of antipathy, vitriol, sacrilege, and sleaze. Holy shit, Sugar Scrub—and I mean that literally!

Multiple Maniacs depicts the mental breakdown of Lady Divine (Divine), the proprietor and star of a traveling freak show called “The Cavalcade of Perversion.” The show’s “performers” literally drag people off the streets and under a tent, where they eat puke, take drugs, lick armpits, and perform other acts of deviance in front of them. For the grand finale, Lady Divine robs everyone in the audience at gunpoint. One day, she decides out of sheer boredom to murder them instead—much to the dismay of her lover, Mr. David (David Lochary). Lady Divine flees the scene of the crimes to hide out at the home of her hooker daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), whose horny new boyfriend, Steve (Paul Swift), is crashing there. Mr. David takes off with his lover, Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), who wants nothing more than to “perform acts” with him. A phone call from a bar owner (Edith Massey) takes Lady Divine down a debaucherous path of rape, lesbianism, blasphemy, betrayal, and more murder.

Like many members of my generation, demographic, and cultural persuasion, I discovered John Waters when I was a teenager. Everything wrong with his films—silly plots, over-the-top trashy cartoonish characters, amateur “acting,” low-rent production, and his general misanthropic outlook and total irreverence—is precisely what drew me to him. He was punk before punk rock. It’s all so wonderfully awful, like Ed Wood with an intentionally nasty, edgy bite—not an unsophisticated innocence that happened by accident.

Multiple Maniacs is typical John Waters, but it’s noteworthy for two reasons. One, it’s loaded with ideas that show up in later films—as far down the line as Serial Mom and Peckerhead. This definitely will appeal to fans, especially when it becomes apparent that Multiple Maniacs is a rough (if you can imagine) blueprint for Pink Flamingos. If nothing else, this film is interesting from a developmental perspective. Two, the shock value is extreme even considering the source. Eating dog shit is tame compared to shooting up in church, cannibalism, a rosary up Divine’s ass (as she recites the Stations of the Cross), and a rape scene involving a giant lobster straight from a Godzilla flick. Jammed with references to Catholicism—including Jesus (George Figgs), Mary (Massey), and the Infant of Prague (Michael Renner, Jr.)—and Charles Manson, Waters creates a number of shall we say “colorful” moments you won’t see anywhere else, ever again.

Oh, Sugar Scrub, can we watch a Disney movie now?

Side note: I started to write this entry as a letter to my friend John (a.k.a. Sugar Scrub), who saw Multiple Maniacs with us. The idea didn’t work. Sorry, John!

91 fucked up minutes
Rated X (NC-17 today)

(Music Box) B

http://www.janusfilms.com/films/1817