Movie Review ~ Lady Bird


The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie

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Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ 20th Century Women

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Synopsis: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: If Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) were to write an autobiography at this point in her career (which is far from it’s expiration date, btw) she might think about titling it “Always an Oscar Bridesmaid” because she’s been runner-up four times now.  Looking over who she’s lost to (Whoopi Goldberg, Hilary Swank {twice!}, Natalie Portman), I feel the right person always won…but it’s gotta be Bening’s time sometime…right?  Her latest bid arrives (with already good buzz for her nomination chances) with 20th Century Women, a 70s set drama about a trio of women and how they affect a young boy growing up in California.  Director Mike Mills guided Christopher Plummer to an Oscar win for Beginners — might he work the same magic for Bening?  Hope so.

Movie Review ~ Mistress America

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister.

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I think it’s only fair to say that I went into Mistress America prepared to hate it.  Like, really hate it.  The preview alone made my eyes want to roll right out of their sockets and hide in a dark corner. How could I possibly go for a movie featuring a director/actress combo that so angered me in the past?  Could I get over my past feelings and my preconceived notions and take Mistress America for what it was and nothing more? It was sure to be a test of my mettle and I’m happy to report that I showed some serious moxie and came out on the other end with a cap on the poison pen I had prepped.

In 2012, director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig teamed up for Frances Ha, their black and white NYC fable following a spirited woman figuring out her place in the world.  Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work (she also wrote it along with Baumbach) and the film achieved some major indie cred for its two collaborators. Lots of people loved it and I…didn’t.  It was a mish mash of pish posh scenes presented more than performed and so rough that it felt like the motto on set was “One take only…no second chances!”.  The result was, for me, a tiresome 86 minutes.

So you can understand why the first trailer for Mistress America, touting the same collaborators working together again, had me fearing the worst.  And while Gerwig still grates on my nerves and speaks the majority of her lines as if she was reading the ingredients on a tuna can, overall the film is a pleasant gem of a picture that has snappy (if ever so highfalutin) dialogue and nicely tuned performances.

Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) is a freshman at Barnard College struggling to adjust to the college experience and living in The Big Apple.  Her mother is about to remarry and, upon hearing that her daughter is stressed, suggests she look up her soon to be stepsister that also lives in NYC.  Brooke (Gerwig) is a fast-talking, big-dreaming social butterfly that has a lot of ideas but no realistic plans on how to achieve her goals.  The two hit it off quickly, with Tracy looking up to her big (step)sister with admiration and using her as inspiration for a short story she’s hoping to submit to a snobby writing society at Barnard.  A road trip for Tracy and Brooke (with two college acquaintances tagging along) to Greenwich, NY proves to be their Waterloo as both women confront certain realities involving their future.

What I found myself enjoying about Mistress America was the rhythm that Baumbach and Gerwig provide for this tale.  There are moments of casual, laid-back dialogue punctuated by rapid-fire exchanges (expertly edited by Jennifer Lame) that can leave the viewer (and the actor) slightly breathless.  A conversation between Brooke and a high school classmate starts small but builds to a comically unexpected climax, as does a late in the game argument between Tracy and a variety of naysayers who call her out on her writing ethics.

Kirke makes for an interesting central figure, not quite deep enough at the beginning but perhaps a bit too knowing by journey’s end.  She is, after all, not yet 20 and I find it hard to believe that a month or two worth of life experiences could influence her so completely.  As mentioned before, Gerwig never met a line she couldn’t go halfway with but you can’t say that her character is one dimensional or without nuance…her best work actually comes when she’s not speaking at all but listening and taking in.  Special mention should also go to Heather Lind are Mamie-Claire, Brooke’s rival for popularity and love.  Lind’s character manages to be both villain and hero of the film without it seeming out of place.

This is probably the first Noah Baumbach movie I’d willingly watch again.  At 84 minutes it flies by and there’s enough comedy goings-on to warrant another look to catch what you may have missed the first time.  Gerwig continues to grow on me and if the two keep making movies as self-assured and entertaining as Mistress America, I’m willing to leave my poison pen at home in the future.

Down From the Shelf ~ Frances Ha

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer, Michael Esper, Charlotte d’Amboise, Michael Zegen, Patrick Heusinger

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I love a good indie film like every other nerdy movie fan but there’s a point when you have to draw a line in the sand and separate the good indies from the bad indies and not apologize for your feelings.

Frances Ha is one of those preciously darling films that critics fawned over and film aficionados loved to analyze over their fat free mocha lattes while combing their tiny moustaches…and I find myself wanting to call bullshit on all of them.  For Frances Ha is nothing new, nothing special, and nothing memorable when all is said and done.  It’s actually a very frustrating experience because it’s so mundane and ordinary that I started wondering if all the reviews telling me I had to see this weren’t part of some elaborate scheme to keep me occupied for 86 minutes while thieves bought Kit Kat bars in bulk with my stolen credit card.

Being fair to the film means pointing out that the reason I kept watching it was for the dynamic lead performance of co-writer Greta Gerwig who has become the Parker Posey of her generation after starring in several acclaimed indie features (we’ll just forget that she c0-starred in the Arthur remake, a certified bomb before retreating back to indie village).  It’s Gerwig that kept me from giving up on the film (and her character) and its why the movie winds up with a score higher than it probably deserves.

Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach, Gerwig collaborates with him on the script that sees the titular character bounce from one apartment to another as she struggles to make ends meet in her quest to become a reasonably famous modern dancer/choreographer.  She seems to be on some path…just not the right one or the one of her choosing so she’s constantly rebelling against it.  I find these movies (like the similarly themed Inside Llewyn Davis) wearisome at times because we can all see that the only thing standing in the way of these characters is their own ego and all they need to do is acquiesce to where they are headed and we can all get on with our lives.

But noooo…we need nearly 90 minutes of crisp black and white photography and a host of episodic encounters with the people Frances meets to finally arrive at that destination only to find that the resolution is better than we (or Frances) could have ever imagined.

This being a very low budget film, scenes were shot on the fly, which seems to support my theory that the mantra on the set was ‘absolutely no 2nd takes whatsoever’.  Most of the actors involved can work within that limitation…save for Mickey Sumner as Frances’ best friend.  I’m not sure what Sumner had on Gerwig/Baumbach to get them to cast her in such a pivotal role but she’s completely out of her league…which becomes painfully obvious with each tortuous scene she’s involved with.  Reading her lines like she’s reciting the back of a macaroni and cheese box, Sumner sucks the blessed life out of everything when she’s onscreen.

That leaves talented supporting players like Adam Driver, Michael Esper, Michael Zegen, and Broadway’s Charlotte d’Amboise to pick up the slack and they can only do so much.  The rest is up to Gerwig and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the actress is quite engaging and energizes much of the film with her zeal and zest for life…clueless as she is to how much she’s messing it all up.

At 86 minutes this isn’t something you’ll be checking your watch through, but it’s also nothing that demands your attention either when there are so many other independent features that have the script, performances, and insight to give you better bang for your buck.

The Silver Bullet ~ Frances Ha

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Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Release Date:  May 17, 2013

Thoughts: Is Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig the Parker Posey of this generation?  Gerwig has cut a nice swath for herself in the past few years with indie performances while occasionally appearing in a big-budget studio picture.  Like Posey, she’s adept at playing a range of characters without making them all feel like variations of the same shtick.  I still find that Posey is a more interesting actress overall but Gerwig is absolutely on the right path.  Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach (they also collaborated on the script), Frances Ha is presented as art-house indie through and through with its B&W photography and culturally observant/oblivious dialogue.  I find Baumbach and Gerwig to be hit or miss but applaud them for pushing themselves outside of the box they’ve created for themselves.