Lizzie–Quiet Desperation

Lizzie— a psychological thriller– is a reinterpretation of the story of Lizzie Borden, the  accused murderer of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Starring and produced by Chloe Sevigny and premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, the viewer sees the highly restrictive circumstances of  women in a patriarchal society and what happens to them when they actively fight against a lifetime of subjugation.

Lizzie Borden, a thirty-two year old single woman,  has very few options other than  residing with her tyrannical father, a wealthy corrupt banker and real estate mogul.  Her  passive stepmother, Abby (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens) all live under Andrew’s oppressive roof. An Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (a fine-tuned performance by Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence as a maid. At first, seeking perhaps solace and a kindred spirit in Bridget, Lizzie teaches her to read.  Soon Lizzie and Bridget form an intimate but conspiratorial relationship.

The theme is female empowerment in a Gilded Age of punitive patriarchal strictures. Lizzie’s uncle and stepmother  provide no practical escape from  her father’s brutal supervision.  She is a woman on the verge  of a mental and physical breakdown.   Several scenes with pigeons that Lizzie nurtures and loves provide a brilliant metaphor for Lizzie’s own free-spirit: living in a cage, yearning for freedom and release from her entrapment.

Lizzie‘s cinematography (by Noah Greenberg) expertly conveys the dark, foreboding patriarchy in camera angles of candle-lit windows, doorways, behind stair-railings and bedroom doors. The lighting alone elicits the sense  that Lizzie and Bridget are both trapped, living a claustrophobic, spiritless life.

Although the pacing will challenge the patience of  some viewers, the opening scenes justifiably hook the viewer in. There is much to praise here besides the fantastic sepia-toned and black-and-white camera shots.  Lizzie is a thought-provoking and elegant Victorian-period tale of women attempting to take their destinies into their own hands when society will not allow that. 

Lizzie may, at times,  lack energy, due to slow pacing, but the hushed and mute austerity of the action plot and the character development are engaging and well-worth seeing.   Sometimes things unsaid increases the dramatic tension necessary to sustain a film.  Lizzie reflects on the abuse of power, class and sexual dynamics of a male dominated society that existed not so long ago. Today’s Handmaid’s Tale? 

Note: DVD available on Netflix

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs.  And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes.  With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio,  what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche,  the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.

The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers.  The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.

The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for:  gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a  “what if” narrative.  But for viewers who are not  familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history. 

And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of  the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.    

I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but  there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  And this is  a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Note:  At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.

Wild Rose–Mothers and Daughters with Impossible Choices

Wild Rose, an indie film about a young aspiring country singer

Wild Rose centers on a young single mother and ex-con who dreams of moving from Scotland to Nashville to become a country singer.  This indie is currently in theaters.

Rose-Lynn Harlan (newcomer Jessie Buckley) dreams of becoming a country music star, while grappling with the regaining the trust of  her two school-age children who have been cared for by her mother (the always remarkable Julie Walters)   during her incarceration for drug dealing.

Why should she give up something she knows she is so good at? On the other hand, is success worth sacrificing her relationship with her children?  This is the impossible, heartbreaking dilemma Rose finds herself in. And dividing her time between maternal responsibilities and personal is rife with obstacles as anyone knows in struggling with work/balance issues.  She’s trapped between two worlds.  the tax on working mothers that will always affect career choices.

Wild Rose  is a powerful portrayal of the resentment that both Rose and her mother have endured in not following their own dreams.  Her mother is the foundation that has provided the love and stability for Rose’s children when their mother could not.   And the  consistent disharmony and disconnect between mother and daughter is contextualized and nuanced, adding a searing dynamic of two women with  unhealed wounds striving to be made whole.

Having to find employment fast as a condition of her parole, Rose’s mother, through a friend, finds a position for Rose as a “daily woman”, a housekeeper for a very wealthy family.  Soon the employer becomes Rose’s  benefactor (Sophie Okonedo), who generously supports her dream to go to Nashville.  Rose is a small-town-girl with big-city dreams, a familiar narrative, but with some unexpected twists.

Wild Rose showcases relationships between women, both maternal and supportive,  without power dynamics, but with a very strong sense of empathy.  This film is a real original!

The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.