Lady Bird

LadyDirector: Greta Gerwig

Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and Odeya Rush

A weird thing happened at the end of the new movie Lady Bird from first time director, Greta Gerwig. The lights came up in the theater and I heard a woman say, “Well, that was weird.” Then another person whispered, “That’s not what I thought it was going to be.” Lastly, someone else just said, “Artistic,” but in a dismissive way. Meanwhile, I sat there silent, listening to these strange criticisms while reflecting on how Gerwig was able to steal so many aspects and events from my life and just put it out there like that. Isn’t that plagiarism? I guess there are a few differences between the character Lady Bird and me. I was a good student, I didn’t have any siblings, oh and I call myself Gentleman Bird, but after that it gets pretty murky.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character, a confused high school student from Sacramento, California, who is desperate for a change, but is still pretty confused about who she is in the first place. In fact, Lady Bird’s given name is Christine, but she decided to rename herself Lady Bird, perhaps just to emphasize to the audience that she’s having a bit of an identity crisis. The year is 2002, and Lady Bird is in the midst of some pure adolescent angst. Her relationship with her parents, principally her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), can be described as strained at best, and the weight and eventuality of adulthood is weighing heavily down on her.

The film casually follows Lady Bird as she traverses her seminal senior year at her Catholic high school, which she attends at a great cost from her parents who while hard-working are not financially secure. Lady Bird is ashamed of her status and dreams of the day when she lives in the big house, has adventures, receives opportunity, and lives sophisticatedly. The problem for Lady Bird and the one she grapples with most throughout the film is that she has done nothing to warrant or really deserve any of those things. What’s more, her private Sacramento Catholic high school is filled with other kids who have done nothing to deserve those things…and yet they have them. The one thing Lady Bird does have going for her is an innate artistic spirit that is picked up on by her nun teacher Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith). Sister Sarah Joan encourages Lady Bird to take that spirit and apply it to the school theatre program, which she does along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Danny (Lucas Hedges), a young man, Lady Bird finds attractive.

That’s the gist of the film. It’s really rather typical in terms of its story, but there are some bits of brilliance that do move the “coming of age” film needle. Lady Bird owes a lot to the sensibilities of predecessors like Juno, The Bling Ring, and most of all Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, Ghost World. All of these films take a different perspective at youth culture and its influences. They all attempt in their own way to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. In retrospect, the opening scene of the film (which I think runs the gamut of human emotion all within the course of two minutes) prepares the audience for this tumultuous relationship, and as this thread develops, it grounds the film and makes it more significant. Metcalf’s portrayal of Marion may be the stand-out performance in a film with several other stand-out performances. She is likely the name we’ll hear most associated with this film come Oscar time, and if not, Marion’s character is certainly the one who is left rattling around in my head at the end.

Lady Bird is not a perfect movie, and it’s not a groundbreaking movie. It is, however, excellent at what it does, and it is very easy to like. Even those people who left the theater with me who were caught off guard by Lady Bird, most likely liked the movie. This is probably because unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is also a film that positions writer/director Greta Gerwig as one of the foremost emerging storytellers in cinema. B+

Lady Bird is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Top 10 Films of the Summer (2014)

Top Ten Summer MoviesWith the summer movie season all but finished, the overall consensus is that this has been a bummer summer at the theater. I am not fast to disagree with this statement, but I will say that there has been a steady flow of films worth seeing. Nonetheless, this summer could have benefitted from a little help, so that’s precisely what I‘ve done with this top ten list. This is not a list of the ten best movies released this summer; this is a list of the ten best movies I watched this summer. For example, The Godfather Part II appears on this list because I watched it on HBO a few weeks ago. I think you’ll find that with a couple of tweaks, this summer easily measures up with the best of the best. Besides, it’s my list, so it’s my rules!

 

Get on Up10.  Get on Up – The number 10 film on this list is a certified summer of 2014 release. The electrifying performance by Chadwick Boseman in this film makes it one that I foresee transitioning from the summer movie season discussion right into the awards season discussion.

 

 

 

juno9.  Juno – Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgic Gen-Xer, or maybe it’s because my wife and I are expecting our first child, but we decided to revisit Jason Reitman’s 2007 comedy. This is a film that certainly received plenty of recognition in its day, but has faded into the background over the years. Still, this quirky comedy anchored by Ellen Page and skillfully penned by stripper/Oscar winner, Diablo Cody is one that deserves a Renaissance almost as much as the hamburger phone does.

 

 

Snowpiercer8.  Snowpiercer – Like #10, Snowpiercer is another summer movie that contains a performance that deserves some award consideration, this time in the supporting category. Tilda Swinton’s devilishly strong turn as the evil Minister Mason aboard the microcosmic bullet train elevates the film’s already fascinating premise that much more.

 

 

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes7.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – The impressive follow-up to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the finest sci-fi film in some time. The effects are as good as it gets and Andy Serkis is mesmerizing in yet another astonishing motion capture performance. The operatic and Shakespearean subtext also ensure the film does not pander or appear too simple despite its premise.

 

 

 

Magic in the Moonlight6.  Magic in the MoonlightNo summer is complete without the gift of a new Woody Allen movie. While this one does not reach the echelon of the director’s finest works, it delivers. Magic in the Moonlight is a beautifully photographed period piece that follows a snarky magician played by Colin Firth as he falls in love while trying to debunk a suspected phony psychic played by Emma Stone.

 

 

 

Godfather25.  The Godfather: Part II – Once in a while, you find yourself in front of the TV on a rainy day and as you’re searching through the channels you find you’re just in time to catch the beginning of the perfect film for the moment. What is there to say that has not been said about this film? Still, Coppola’s brilliantly conceived sequel not only continues the Corleone crime family’s saga but also explains its origin. Furthermore, the exceptionally quotable script is audacious and daring.

 

 

Boyhood4.  Boyhood – Perhaps the greatest cinematic experiment that I have had the pleasure of seeing in my lifetime. The plot is simple, the direction is appropriate, but the concept is fascinating, Richard Linklater and his small but talented cast headed by the newcomer and suddenly very familiar Ellar Coltrane follows its characters over a 12 year period as they simply live the life they lead. The experimental piece is that the movie was also filmed over 12 years allowing the cast to age along with the characters. This is a wonderfully successful film with great heart and a great use of music as well, including the added bonus of “Post-Beatles Black Album” playlist that is a must for any Beatles fan.

 

Mulholland Dr3.  Mulholland Dr. – A spellbinding puzzle of a movie! This is one that requires multiple viewings anyway, and each time it’s seen, the experience is richer. On the surface, Mulholland Dr. appears to be a simple story about a Hollywood hopeful discovering the price of her dreams, but it quickly becomes much more than that. What’s real and what’s imagined is for you to decide, but director David Lynch does provide an appropriately enigmatic roadmap worth taking a look at.

 

 

life itself2.  Life Itself – In April of 2013, film lovers lost a legend. Eulogized on this blog, Roger Ebert was an inspiration not just for movie fans, but for lovers of the written word. Life Itself, filmed by one of Ebert’s favorite documentarians Steve James, lovingly and truthfully explores Ebert’s life, holding back nothing from Ebert’s inspirational assent in popularity to his heartbreakingly sad battle with cancer.

 

 

Captain American1.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I know June 21st is the official start of summer, but cinematically, when the hell does it start? I submit that it starts the moment an Avenger appears on screen; therefore, my number one film that I saw this summer marks both the start of the summer movie season as well as the height of its majesty. While many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing.

 

  • Honorable Mentions: Enemy and Under the Skin – Two of the weirdest movies I saw on DVD this summer were also two of the best. Both of these films beg for interpretation and while both are creepy, they are not phony in their intentions to awe and inspire discussion. There is something unseen and haunting at the core of both of these films and I am still thinking about them in terms of what their true meanings are!

 

The Way Way Back

ImageThere is something compelling about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new coming of age comedy, The Way Way Back.  In the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Moonrise Kingdom, The Way Way Back unfolds in a deliberately subtle way, drawing audiences in with charm and substance.

The story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a wallflower who spends the summer with his mother at her new boyfriend’s seaside resort home on the East coast.  Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) hopes the trip will give Duncan a chance to bond with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as well as give Duncan a chance to make some friends and come out of his shell.  Things do not go as planned as Trent’s overbearing personality clashes with Duncan’s, and Steph is more interested in getting a tan than hanging out with Duncan causing him to feel more isolated and undervalued than ever.  It is not until he stumbles upon the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and unexpectedly befriends its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) that Duncan discovers who he really is and what is most important.

It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about The Way Way Back that is so engaging.  On the surface, it is simply a story about a young boy who doesn’t fit in until he meets a group of confident, expressive people that teach him to value himself.  This is all well and good, but there is more to this film than just that.  What writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made is a subtle allegorical film that symbolically captures the nature of growing up, and that’s what makes it special.  Scenes where characters argue over the rules of Candy Land, discuss the ocular abilities of ghost crabs, and ponder the mythology of what happens within the tube on a waterslide all assist in deepening the figurative message of the film.

Furthermore, the film sets its aim on the hypocrisy of adults who have it set in their mind that they deserve an extended childhood of poor decision making but shouldn’t expect such behavior from their own children.  Many of the adults in the film are seen shouting orders to their kids, setting curfews for their kids, and giving advice about how their kids should act only to turn around and get fall-down drunk, cheat on each other, and disappear all hours of the day and night.  This is perhaps the film’s most dynamic and serious theme and it is worth noting that the film does not attack the idea of an extended childhood for adults, but rather it attacks childish adult role models who have unrealistic expectations for those who look up to them, given the example they set.  This point is most successfully made in the character of Owen.  As a water park manager and perpetual goofball, Owen is constructed as a foil to the other adults in the film.  His character is honest and dependable while also being a child at heart.  The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is touching and welcomed.

Beyond the writing, what makes The Way Way Back such an enjoyable and poignant film is its ensemble cast.  James is very good as Duncan, who in the film’s first act successfully depresses the audience with his extreme “introverted-ness.”  Collette expertly reveals Pam’s conflicted nature throughout the film, and Rockwell gives an immensely enjoyable performance as Owen where he gets a chance to showcase his warmth and quick wit rather than his usual quirky, off kilter types.  Steve Carrell does well against type as the highly unlikable Trent and Allison Janney adds one more scene stealing role to her already abundant resume as Trent’s neighbor, Betty.  Additional side characters are well cast including Duncan’s potential love interest, Susanna (Annashophia Robb), mismatched couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), and Owen’s girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph).  The strength of the cast and the film’s symbolic texture do well to balance out the fairly predictable story and the audience familiarity with the shuffling, depressed American teenager (which is becoming a somewhat unwelcomed cliché).  Rash, fresh off of his Screenwriting Oscar for 2011’s The Descendants, emulates his enigmatic title by illustrating that he will not be sent to the “way way back” of the film industry any time soon.   B+

The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  As summer winds its way to a close, this is a fitting film to make an effort to find and see. 

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