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 ~ Brooklyn

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a new romance. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Director: John Crowley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: Here’s something you don’t get every day, a sweetly innocent romance that doesn’t oversell its charm and doesn’t make anyone a villain along the way.  Brooklyn was an unexpected delight, anchored by strong performances, a sensitive script adapted from a heartfelt novel, and tender direction that underplays without ever resting on its heels.

A wallflower working for a shrewish shop owner in 1950s Ireland, Eilis (a ravishing Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) is given the chance for a new life in America when her sister makes arrangements for her to travel to a new country with new opportunities.  Her sister stays back to care for their aging mother and invests her dreams with her sister as she sends her on her way.  The journey is hard and the adjustment difficult but soon Eilis has created a place and purpose for herself where previously it never existed.

Living in an all-female boarding house run by Mrs. Keogh (a splendid Julie Walters, Paddington), Eilis works in a department store and attends Friday night dances put on by the parish that sponsored her trip.  Expecting to meet another Irish immigrant, she’s instead romanced by a shy but persistent New York native (Emory Cohen, The Gambler) who courts her in a most old-fashioned way.  She meets his family, considers a future with him and then…plans change.

What makes Brooklyn so special is that it presents choices for our leading lady in a time when women didn’t always have a say in what their lives had in store for them.  And it goes further than that, making clear that either decision that Eilis contemplates holds promise of a full life.  No one is colored as malicious (at least none of the main characters are) and there is no “bad guy” to be found.  To introduce that factor would mean that there was a “right” choice to make.  As audience members we know what we want her to do, but there’s trust established that lets us know she has her head on straight.

Ronan was one of the younger actresses ever to be nominated for an Oscar for her brilliant work in 20074’s Atonement and she’s likely making her way into the Best Actress nominees this year for her beautifully realized performance.  Cohen, too, has charm to spare and I found myself smiling at his sincerity as the would-be tough New Yorker expresses his feelings for his Irish lass.  Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) hits the right notes as an Irish suitor for Eilis as does Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas) as a priest that provides support for Eilis while in America.

More than anything, I wished for Brooklyn to go on longer…I wanted to know more about these people, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine another movie (or TV series…hint hint hint) fashioned around the boarding house run by Julie Walters.  There’s rich material there and from the various women we meet during our brief visits there’s more than enough laughs and tears to fuel new story ideas.

Directed by John Crowley (Closed Circuit) and adapted by Nick Hornby (Wild) from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is surely one of the best films you’re likely to see in 2015 (or 2016, now that you’re reading this).  Make the journey, it’s worth the trip.

The Silver Bullet ~ Brooklyn

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Synopsis: In 1950s Ireland and New York, young Ellis Lacey has to choose between two men and two countries.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: After making an impressive (and Oscar-nominated) debut in 2007’s Atonement, Saoirse Ronan has found herself in a diverse line-up of roles/films that have shown she’s not a one-trick pony.  From the post-Twilight teen romance The Host to Wes Anderson’s zany masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel to the bold (and woefully underseen) How I Live Now, Ronan seems to favor keeping her options and not being pigeon-holed in any one genre.

Tackling another period piece in Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín), Ronan looks like she has another small winner on her hands.  Then again, I’m a sucker for films set in this era so it’s not a shocker that I’m looking forward to this tale of an Irish immigrant making a go of it in 1950s New York City. Director John Crowley last helmed the so-so Closed Circuit in 2013 but his screenwriter is Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Wild) who knows a thing or two about what it takes to bring a novel to life.  Arriving after the summer din and before the holiday rush, here’s hoping it’s as good as it looks.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.

Movie Review ~ How I Live Now {Twin Cities Film Festival}

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An American girl sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives finds herself fighting for her survival as the UK turns into a violent military state.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The more movies I take in the less surprised I seem to be.  When you think about it, isn’t everything just a variation on the same several plot points across a limited amount of genre categories?  That’s why when I catch a movie that surprises me, I tend to sit up a little straighter in my seat and find that I’m willing to give myself over a little more to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from How I Live Now before I saw it at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival.  I had read a little about it and knew that it was adapted from a YA novel penned by Meg Rosoff but I deliberately skipped watching the trailer and generally avoided anything that might give away too much, lest I go in with certain expectations that wouldn’t, couldn’t be met.  When you’re as in to movies as I am, this lack of knowledge can sometimes be a huge gift and it’s probably the reason I wound up liking the movie as much as I did.

Though she started out 2013 in a blah adaptation of another popular YA novel (The Host – for which my negative review inspired an unhappy fan to say they wanted to punch me in the face), Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan comes back swinging here with a performance unafraid to be unlikable.  She’s a temperamental (read: bitchy) American girl visiting her aunt and cousins in their quaint English countryside estate when nuclear war breaks out in major cities around the world.

That’s about all you’ll need to know before seeing where How I Live Now takes this character and charts her experiences as she struggles to come to grips that her life will never be the same.  Where the first half of the film has the audience reeling at how bitter Ronan’s character is (we get the sense that her widowed father shipped her away for some peace and quiet), the second half turns the tables and easily wins the viewer back to Ronan’s side.

There’s nice support from a largely unknown and young cast who handle the harrowing material very well.  I liked Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible and he does equally strong work here as Ronan’s sensitive younger cousin. George MacKay rises above his characters questionable relationship with Ronan and tiny Harley Bird survives several scary scenes where her character is in grave danger.

The movie struggles with some tonal shifts that may be a little hard for people to roll with.  One moment it’s a dark comedy, the next a survivalist tale before switching to human drama and then into a dewey (and kind eeeewy) romance.  Even so, there was something about how director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps everything afloat and slightly off balance that had me modestly mesmerized.  I wasn’t sure how the movie would end or if I’d even be happy with the resolution but thankfully the wrap-up makes sense as it aligns with everything that came before it.

You probably missed this one during its brief run in theaters but if you happen to be browsing your local Blockbuster (whoops!) I mean, your local Redbox or Netflix queue this one might be a more than pleasant surprise.  After all, it’s always the movies you are least expecting that find a way to sneak up on you.

Movie Review ~ The Host

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about, proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher

Director: Andrew Niccol

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: TBD

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Let’s just face the facts –Stephenie Meyer just isn’t a very good writer.  No matter how much spit shine you put on the film adaptation of her novels you can’t escape that reality.  The four Twilight novels (and subsequent five films) were a worldwide phenomenon…but these always had a shelf life on them.  Her other literary endeavor is The Host and though it was marginally better received in the book community, it’s yet another half-baked saga concerning a love triangle and the impact that has on a continuing battle between two species.

To its credit, The Host is a bit loftier in the message it’s trying to convey but for every inch the film moves forward in making a point about a peaceful society, the sappy romance elements drag it back a few feet.  Worse, the film has to overcome more than a few silly plot devices such as a character having an ongoing internal dialogue with a secondary personality living inside her head. 

If that last statement had you going back and reading it again…maybe I should back up.  The Host is set in the not too distant future where an alien race has invaded our planet and implanted “souls” in our bodies.  These souls are alien life forms from distant planets that are here to restore peace and order to a troubled world.  Problem is, to do so they use our bodies as vessels…destroying our original personality and replacing it with one from the souls.  Though they can access our memories, mankind has become a prisoner in their own bodies. 

Some humans have developed a way to fight their host and that’s where we find Melanie Stryder (Oscar nominee Ronan) as she is implanted with a soul (that calls itself Wanderer…hey…at least it isn’t Renesmee!) that she battles with and eventually learns to coexist with as she leads her physical body to the desert where a small band of freedom fighters await her.  It also helps that her uncle (a surprisingly game Hurt), her brother (Chandler Canterbury), and her love interest (Irons, son of Jeremy) are there as well.

Pursued by a vengeful Seeker (Kruger…doing her best Charlize Theron impression) as Melanie/Wanderer joins the fight, another love interest (Abel) comes into play…creating not so much a love triangle but a rectangle of feelings.  While the film isn’t as dewy eyed or groan-inducing as the Twilight films, there are more than a few moments when your eyes will get a nice workout from rolling around in your head.

In his previous films  Gattaca, Simone, and In Time, director Niccol has created a steely sterile version of the future and those same elements are on display here.  All of the “bad guy” cars are shiny silver (even the helicopters) and everything about the enemies is in perfect alignment.  That contrasts nicely with the rough edges of the remaining un-hosted humans who look like refugees from a Mad Max movie.  Shot in some fantastic vistas in New Mexico, the film looks expensive and has some above average special effects.

It’s too bad that the script doesn’t match up to the production values.  Adapting Meyer’s novel was probably a chore and I think Niccol did his best with it…but an overabundance of cliché situations doesn’t give the film much room to breathe.  Ronan is a decent heroine, though like a groundhog her Louisiana accent only comes out to see its shadow before it retreats.  Irons and Abel are, if possible, blander love interests than the vampires and werewolves in Twilight and Kruger just doesn’t fit the ice queen persona she’s tasked to play.  Only Hurt seems to come out of this unscathed…maybe because he knows not to take everything so very seriously.

When all is said and done I’m glad that The Host was a standalone novel and not one we will see countless sequels for the next few years.  With the recent released (and much better) Beautiful Creatures totally bombing, I’ve a feeling this one will be a hard sell to audiences who are exhausted from tween romances.  For all its sleek effects and occasional on the money social observance, The Host winds up feeling lackluster and sluggish and not the satisfying movie experience that it could have been

The Silver Bullet ~ The Host – Trailer #2

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Synopsis: A parasitic alien soul is injected into the body of Melanie Stryder. Instead of carrying out her race’s mission of taking over the Earth, “Wanda” (as she comes to be called) forms a bond with her host and sets out to aid other free humans.

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Thoughts:  Thankfully, the second trailer for The Host shows more plot points than the previous teaser released earlier this year.  Based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel (that was received much better than her Twilight tomes), I’m interested to see how this one develops.  It looks fairly run of the mill to me but I’ve enjoyed director Andrew Nicol’s work in the past — his cooly futuristic Gattaca is still a favorite – so there is some hope.  I’m hoping this is less lovey-dovey than The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 but having not read the novel I’m unsure of how similar the two films will be.