Posts Tagged ‘greta gerwig’

The House of the Devil (2009)

The 80s are a favorite period for many horror fans, producing as they did films as diverse and disturbing as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and a whole range of brutal slasher films that indulged backlash male fears and, occasionally, a few feminist ones as well. The contemporary horror fan’s obsession with the 80s has some darkness to it as well, given the obsession with weaponized maniacs murdering bare-breasted women and prizing the Final Girl as the ultimate virginal fantasy. But there are times when 80s nostalgia produces something really unique, as is the case with Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a deliberate throwback to the decade that immerses its viewer in the chills and thrills of slow-burn violence.

Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, a sophomore at an upstate college who longs to move into a proper apartment. When she spots a flyer asking for a babysitter, she answers it, and heads out to a lonely house far from campus on the night of a full lunar eclipse. There she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov), and learns that there are no children to look after – the couple just want someone to stay in the house for the evening in order to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman’s mother, a bed-bound old woman asleep upstairs. The whole setup is a bit creepy, but Samantha needs the money and agrees.

We all know where this is going, but The House of the Devil takes its sweet time in getting there. The opening act leading up to the arrival at the house takes up a good bit of runtime, but somehow the slow burn isn’t boring. This is a leisurely film that knows how to develop the tension, rather than getting straight to the violence. And that’s the film’s strength – rather than rushing into what’s ultimately a sparse and somewhat predictable narrative, there’s an inherent enjoyment of the development of the fear, as the audience waits for the killer, the cult, the ghost, or goblin to come into frame. Some viewers who demand more gore and less tension might find it dull, but the time that West takes to develop his story is time well-spent. There are momentary bursts of violence separated by long sections of Samantha ordering pizza, turning on the TV, investigating weird noises coming from the upstairs. As the narrative unfolds at its own pace, the viewer can only sit back and watch, secure in the knowledge that something is going to happen, held in thrall by not knowing when.

Donahue is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work. She’s a throwback to the Final Girls of the 1980s, recalling Jamie Lee Curtis or Dee Wallace (who has a bit part as a landlady at the beginning of the film), innocent without being weak or even particularly naïve. Although the situation is creepy, the film takes care to develop reasons for staying at the house that are believable and that therefore don’t prompt the audience to dismiss her as stupid, or the film for concocting excuses to get to the scary bits. Given that Donahue has to spend most of her onscreen time alone, it’s a testament to her presence that The House of the Devil never bores, and that the audience can care about her character fairly quickly.

The House of the Devil won’t be for everyone. It’s very much an 80s film, even if made in 2009, with a self-seriousness that avoids any hint of the campy. As such, as it’s incredibly loving film, a movie that feels like an homage without attempting to be more knowing than the films it references, that tries and largely succeeds in approximating one of horror’s most famous periods. But it’s still slow, more interested in the creation of tension than in giving the viewer blood and guts. It works, thanks in no small measure to West’s use of old-school aesthetics in the creation of the house itself, and the occasional hints of what is actually going on just enough to the audience on their toes.

The House of the Devil is available to stream on Shudder.

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Lady Bird (NYFF 2017)

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird doesn’t feel like a first film. It’s more mature, more cinematically eloquent than that. Gerwig has already done most jobs in the film industry, including acting and writing and co-directing, so directing her first solo feature is hardly a big jump. But unlike many actors turned directors, there is not even a hint of self-indulgence in her film; not a glimmer of smugness or egotism. She simply tells the story, with intelligence and quirky humor and an awkwardness that can only approximate the mind and emotions of a teenage girl.

Saoirse Ronan is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson, a high school senior in Sacramento, where she attends a Catholic high school because, as her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) says, her elder brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) “saw a kid stabbed” in the public school. The film encompasses all of Lady Bird’s senior year, as she shifts identities according to her social desires, spars with her mother and father (Tracy Letts), and hopes to get into a New York college, despite her mother’s constant admonition that they cannot afford to send her out of state. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), finds a tentative romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges), and flirts with social anarchism via Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

But Lady Bird is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve tried – and failed – to think of another film that so sharply and humorously shows what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Lady Bird’s shifting identities reveal a combination of uncertainty and confidence, a desire to fit in and a desire to stand out. She tells everyone to call her Lady Bird – a nickname she gives herself and that is never explained – because she rejects the idea that her parents should be allowed to name her, and thus identify her. But she seems to have difficulty discovering her own identity, or accepting those parts of her life that are bequeathed to her by her family. Many of her friends and classmates are wealthy, and she dreams of living in the big houses on the “right side of the tracks,” where she goes to Thanksgiving with Danny. Her father’s job is in jeopardy, her mother works double shifts in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, her brother and his girlfriend graduated from Berkeley but have to work at the grocery, but Lady Bird has ambitions to escape Sacramento for the excitement of New York City. She in love many different ideas, and not quite able to fulfill any of them. She’s not unaware of her family’s circumstances but, as with many children and teenagers, she doesn’t seem to understand just how difficult it is for them to get by.

Class and religion are not the focus of the film, yet they do drive much of the narrative, integrated as they are into the characters’ lives and desires. Lady Bird’s class consciousness is immature as yet, and she flirts with various performative identities as a way of standing out. There are moments of high hilarity and joy, as when she joins the school’s drama club for a Sondheim production, and moments where she’s petty and mean, rejecting good friends in order to be accepted by the cool kids. As basically predictable as these plot points are, Lady Bird transcends them by making them real. Yes, teenage girls really do try on identities in the same way they try on clothes. Yes, they do sometimes drop good friendships in order to find some social acceptance in bad ones. And, yes, they do fall for overly cool boys who are just douchebags. These things happen in real life and Lady Bird treats them with the seriousness and the humor that they demand, weaving them into a complex fabric that makes them an organic part of the characters’ lives.

There is also something so fundamentally believable about these characters. They are fully realized people whose lives we are allowed to watch. Yes, they are sometimes types, but they never clichéd. These are human beings, not symbols, and they live whole and sometimes tragic lives. Drama and comedy go hand in hand; there are moments of cringe-worthy humor and all-too-human meanness. While the film is often uproariously funny, it’s also poignant, and we are never asked to really laugh at the different people who come in and out of Lady Bird’s life. They are people, too. In this, Gerwig is already a mature director with a deep respect for her medium and the characters that permeate it.

The supporting cast here are excellent, but the stand out – the co-star, really – of the film is Laurie Metcalf, who deserves an Oscar and more for her multifaceted performance as Lady Bird’s mother Marion. It’s as much a movie about her as it is about Lady Bird. She’s trying to learn to let go, worried about her daughter’s future and intensely critical of her choices at the same time. She’s an acerbic character, but never shrill, never deliberately vicious, even if she is sometimes a bit cruel. There is one scene in particular nearing the end as the camera dwells on Metcalf’s face as it transforms with a tapestry of conflicting emotions, culminating in one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful moments in the film. I’ve always appreciated Metcalf as a comedienne, and now I truly appreciate her as an actress.

At another time, on a second or third or fourth watch, I’m sure I will be able to find something to criticize about Lady Bird. But right now, having ruminated on this film for a full day, there is little to nitpick. It’s a beautiful film, very funny, and profoundly moving. Gerwig the director can only improve from here, and that’s incredibly exciting.