Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  

The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

Interior of a Movie TheaterWhat a great year for movies. 2017 will go down as one of the better years in past decade. Jodie Foster may be out there slamming superhero movies, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a couple of this year’s superhero movies are about nine million times better than Nim’s Island, so slow your roll Clarice.  Of course, as I say every year, here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes – and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only a handful have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. We’re getting better but movies like The Post, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, and Call Me By Your Name are still playing it aloof.

Anyway, Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 23rd, bright and early, and while Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2017.

The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of 2017

mother11!. mother! – Wait a minute; isn’t this a top ten list? Well yes it is, but sometimes something comes out of nowhere that takes you off guard, makes you uneasy, and doesn’t play by the rules (including those of grammar and punctuation!). So fittingly, a film that does all of those things deserves to have an unofficial spot in this year’s list. Now, never have I endorsed a film as impossible to recommend as this one is. My mantra as a critic has always been to write about and critique films based on whether they’re worth your time and money to see. This one, for most of you, is not. However, it is certainly one of the best films I have seen this year, and so it, just barely, belongs on this list. mother! is a parable of nature, religion, and humanity. It uses heavy handed symbolism to unwind its narrative in such a breathtaking and surreal way, that you may be struck silent by the time the credits roll. Another film, Get Out, does all of this to a lesser degree in my opinion, yet has received tremendous acclaim and attention. My hat tips to director, Darren Aronofsky who chooses not to play it safe, allowing mother! to just barely edge Get Out off my list of the best of the year.

war10. War for the Planet of the Apes – Did you see it? Probably not. This, now trilogy, has actually been quite extraordinary, and this third installment is the finest yet. This film has the feeling of an epic, and director Matt Reeves shoots it like a western. Andy Sirkis reprises his impressive role as Caesar, who is pitted against a crazed military colonel played by Woody Harrelson who is fighting off a new strand of the Simian flu that renders human survivors of the previous strand mute. There is a real sense of power and depth to this film and the visual effects are so well done that you easily forget these apes are CGI.

logan9. Logan – This is an X-Men film, but due to some creative play with franchise timelines, Logan gets to be something different. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film than the usual comic book fare, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids. Like the number 10 film on my list, this film is framed like a modern-day western, and in fact, there is an overt and critical reference to the 1953 classic, Shane. It is also directed by James Mangold, who is responsible for other “country-western” influenced films like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. While not for the faint at heart, this film is one that can be appreciated on many levels by all types of people.

last8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi A Star Wars film has made my list three years straight now, and while this is the lowest ranking one has had thus far, it would have probably fared better against 2015 and 2016 films. The sequel to The Force Awakens starts strong and finishes strong, which like Rogue One before it, is becoming a valuable trademark of these films. Director Rian Johnson takes a risk by exploring the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds to massive effect. He asks us to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

lady7. Lady Bird Welcome to the artsier part of the list, and Lady Bird is certainly that! This is one of the finer films that attempts 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. Ronan and Metcalf are outstanding and will certainly be tough to beat come Oscar time. 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.

coco6. Coco This is a great film. This is also the first full movie my daughter has ever seen with me, which makes it extra special. That aside, this movie is hard not to love. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. It’s also a great story about Hispanic culture, legacy, life, death, and tradition.

35. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Director Martin McDonagh has solidified his Coen Brother-influenced style with films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, now with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he goes full Coen even hiring Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand as the lead of the film, who incidentally gives one of the finest performances of her career. This twisty, quirky drama plays at first like a murder mystery, but quickly becomes something more. Woody Harrelson shows up on my list for the second time giving another excellent performance as Ebbing police Chief Willoughby only to be outdone by Sam Rockwell who gives a career performance as one of Harrelson’s officers. Incidentally, Lucas Hedges also has a small role as McDormand’s son, and he played a role in Lady Bird this year as well.

thor4. Thor: RagnarokWell, the Thor movies finally found their legs with this third film, which proves the third time’s a charm. This time, Thor discovers dealing with his brother Loki was child’s play in comparison to fighting his previously unknown sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.

dunk3. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan did it again. This is the third movie Nolan has released since I started doing these lists back in 2013, and with Dunkirk he’s 3 for 3! this is such a naturalistic film, that characters hardly matter, and Nolan even goes so far as to cast actors who all basically look alike. He does not want you to be invested in any one hero or character. He wants you to pay attention to the events, the feelings, the sounds, and the visuals. Nolan also implements his famous nonlinear story tricks that he’s become so famous for using in films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar to make the film even more engaging.

baby2. Baby Driver – On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It know that sounds weird, but it works really well. Like Dunkirk, story and characters takes a back seat to the experience of watching this movie. In fact, It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. In light of recent events, Kevin Spacey’s presence in this film retrospectively brings it down a peg, but Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed.

blade1. Blade Runner 2049It’s not shocking that a visually dazzling film from director Denis Villenueve would be my number one film of the year, but it is kind of surprising that that film would be a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. It dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are breathtaking. It’s no coincidence that my picks for the top three films of the year are complex, multi-sensory cinematic experiences. I think that is the legacy 2017 is leaving, and with James Cameron’s hotly anticipated Avatar sequels slated to start coming out in 2019 or 2020, I think we’re on the cusp of a truly spectacular evolution of the cinematic medium!

The Four Worst Films of 2017

I mentioned that 2017 was a pretty good year for movies, at least in terms of the ones I was able to see. That being the case along with the fact that I cheated and gave you a top 11, I will make things right here and just put up a worst 4.

atom4. Atomic BlondeThis one suffered from heightened expectations. It probably doesn’t objectively deserve to be on this list, but for me, Atomic Blonde was one of the most disappointing two hours I’ve spent at the movies in 2017. All we have is a middle of the road espionage film, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That is the recipe for a high risk of disappointment.

Murder3. Murder on the Orient Express – Speaking of “high risk of disappointment,” try remaking a 1974 Sidney Lumet film based on one of the most famous novels of all time after it has been made into at least five subsequent films over the 30 years in between. Bad idea. Kenneth Branagh is erratic at best as director and star, and while he assembled a decent cast, this is one of the most needless remakes of all time, offering no relevance or value above dull self-indulgence.

Justice2. Justice League – New year, another DC bomb! At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results came in and two of their films made my worst of 2015 list: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. This year, they maintain their reservation on my list once again with Justice League. I will say this, it’s their best bad movie yet, but it’s still bad. If you told me you could put Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in a movie together and still bore me, I’d say you were crazy, but it turns out this is entirely possible. The movie has some fun with some of the characters, but at the end it’s still a messy pile of egos, disorganized and faced off against yet another uninspired villain.

Fifty1. Fifty Shades Darker – How is this still a thing? This movie is unwatchable. This is actually the first time I’ve ever included a movie on any list that I did not actually see in its entirety. I used to have a rule that I would give every movie I review or critique the benefit of at least having seen it through. I can now no longer say that. Thanks Fifty Shades Darker. You have literally compromised my own values as a critic, and for that, you are the worst movie I’ve seen any or all of this year.

 

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.

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