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CIFF 2017: Breathe & Lady Bird

October 15, 2017

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When an actor takes the helm of feature-length filmmaking for the first time, I initially wonder why the subject they have directed was chosen. In the case of the biographical drama “Breathe”, directed by Andy Serkis (best known for his sublime motion-capture work in the “Lord of the Rings” and recent “Planet of the Apes” films) and the dramedy “Lady Bird”, directed by Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America” and “Frances Ha”), both actors are directing something very close to them. Serkis is friends with producer Jonathan Cavendish, who is the son of the subject of the film and Gerwig is loosely basing her own experiences growing up in Sacramento, California for her film. None of that information is needed prior to seeing either of these films – both of which will be getting significant year-end word-of-mouth – but it is nevertheless interesting to learn how and why these two actors chose the material they did for their directorial debuts. 

“Breathe” and “Lady Bird” were shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month, where Gerwig’s film opened the Special Presentations section, receiving a rapturous standing ovation after its premiere. There is certainly award buzz already building for both films, but in my mind, only one of them deserves such accolades. One film seemingly checks all the boxes that Oscar voters have been known to be drawn to in the past, while the other stands out with such a unique and impressive voice.

 

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BREATHE

directed by: Andy Serkis
(United Kingdom)

With award-season upon us, we’re going to see “Oscar bait” films coming out almost every week and at least one of them will be a biopic, specifically one where an actor can be found playing a character with a disability.

Oscar-nominated (for 1993’s “Shadowlands”, another biopic) screenwriter William Nicholson chronicles the true love story between Robin and Diana Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, respectively), an active and adventurous couple, you married soon after meeting in the late 1950s and are brought closer together Robin is struck down by polio at the age of 28, while Diana is pregnant. Paralyzed from the neck down, reliant on a respirator to live, a devastated Robin is given only months to live. A resilient Diana is determined to support her husband any way she can, which results in the unprecedented decision to move Robin out of the imprisoned environment of a hospital bed and into a home, surrounded by family and friends. With the help of Diana’s twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and family friend/inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana become strong advocates for providing independence to the disabled and Robin winds up becoming one of the longest-living polio survivors in Great Britain.

Without a doubt, “Breathe” is telling an inspiring and uplifting story, but it becomes problematic in how it tells that story. The focus of the film is on the moving love story between Robin and Diana and less on the effect being disabled had on their marriage or the personal trials of being disabled. While the performances from Garfield and Foy are really good and the movie as a whole has its heart in the right place (with striking cinematography from Robert Richardson, a frequent collaborator with Martin Scorsese), the story is missing some raw and real moments. The overall tone Serkis’ film is cheery, which seems odd for such a compelling story – on top of that,  the anachronistic score by Nitin Sawhney (who composed Serkis’ “The Jungle Book” for Warner Brothers, set to be released next year) is at times carnivalesque – which finds the overall intent of “Breathe” proudly wearing its crowd-pleasing intent a bit too obviously.

RATING: **

Tue, Oct 17th – 8:30pm

 

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LADY BIRD

directed by: Greta Gerwig
(United States)

“Lady Bird” is not just a funny and genuinely endearing coming-of-age tale, it’s a delight from start to finish with some of the best performances I’ve seen all year. But the real star is writer/director Greta Gerwig’s screenplay, which is just electric with authenticity and excels and getting the right voice for each character.

Gerwig’s story follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (the always great Saoirse Ronan) a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento she resents – her parents, nurse Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and financial consultant/computer programmer Larry (Tracy Letts), thought it was too dangerous for her to attend public school after her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) witnessed a stabbing – is desperate to get away from her hometown and attend a university on the East Coast, despite her weak grades. Underneath her sardonic attitude, Lady Bird (a name she’s given herself) is a precocious, self-focused teen, unaware of the hardships her parents experience to provide the best they can for her. She’s more concerned with bouncing between best friends, Jenna (Odeya Rush) and Julie (Beanie Fieldstein) and the affections of classmates, Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). As the school year goes by, Lady Bird faces challenges that change her relationships with and perspectives toward her friends and family.

“Lady Bird” is free from the quirk and twee we’ve come to expect from teen coming-of-age movies. While watching Gerwig’s film, I couldn’t help but recall how I felt the first time I watched Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” or Ivan Reitman’s “Juno” – and I mean the very first time I saw those movies, when the comedy and the tone felt so acutely synchronized that it felt like nothing else before it. That’s the vibe this movie exudes. Gerwig’s characters feel real and relatable, but most importantly what she gets crucially right in “Lady Bird” is the dialogue. It’s a fine balance of writing like teens sound and also steering clear of depicting parents in a stereotypical manner. The outcome sets an outstanding stage for Ronan and Hedges, as well as Metcalf and Letts, to win us over gradually and ultimately shine.

RATING: ****

Wed, Oct 18th – 8:00pm
IN ATTENDANCE: actor Tracy Letts

 

 

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