Nov 22

“Lady Bird”: Pre-College Teen Navigates Her Identity

A heartfelt coming-of-age story that perfectly captures the bittersweet transition from adolescence to dawning adulthood, [Greta] Gerwig’s directorial debut is a joy from start to finish, a warm, generous snapshot of teenage vulnerability and exuberance. Review of Lady Bird by Lara Zarum, Village Voice

Lady Bird isn’t a movie about any searing issue; it’s just a wonderful, rare character study of a young woman figuring out her identity, and all the pitfalls that follow. David Sims, The Atlantic

For what it’s worth, Lady Bird is the highest-ranking film ever on Rotten Tomatoes, with a perfect score.The 17-year-old lead character, as described by Sims:

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is someone cursed with that familiar, often painful, gift of youth—absolute certainty. She feels everything strongly, expresses her opinions loudly, and both wounds and charms the people around her without meaning to. On the brink of adulthood, she’s resolute enough about her desire to go to college on the East Coast (far from her home of Sacramento) that she tosses herself out of a moving car when her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) tries to dismiss her ambitions. Another movie might frame that moment as frightening or foolish, but Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird celebrates Christine’s teenage will, no matter how extreme it can sometimes be.

Sims emphasizes the importance of the connection between Lady Bird and her mom:

Lady Bird is a powerful illustration of the temporary tenuousness of the mother-daughter bond in the later teenage years, and the surprising strength of that connection even during times of total conflict. Gerwig knows how easily children can wound their parents and vice versa, and the film’s best moments spring from those (often accidental) blow-ups.

As does Zarum, who notes “it’s in many ways Marion’s story, too”:

Gerwig nails this dynamic, the subtle manner in which Marion’s little criticisms, small and sharp as a pin, poke into a daughter’s psyche the way only a mother can; or the way weeks’ worth of argument and hostility can drift off like mist when, on a shopping excursion, mother and daughter both spot the right dress at the same time.

In her article “Why the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Lady Bird Feels So Real” (The Cut), Anna Silman states, “Lady Bird is a story of personal growth, but it’s also a story of attachment: of a mother and daughter struggling to navigate their boundaries at a time when a mother’s fear of abandonment and a daughter’s desire for independence are particularly at war with one another.”

Silman points out that many of the mother-child issues have presumably emanated from Marion’s upbringing with an alcoholic, abusive mother. Although we viewers know this from a brief remark cast off by Marion, her behavior seems to indicate a major lack of insight into the ways she’s developed as a result.

Other of Lady Bird’s fraught relationships include those with her older brother Miguel, whose girlfriend also resides with their family, her best friends—both real and wannabe, and a couple of first boyfriends.

A more secure attachment, on the other hand, is what Lady Bird has with her father (Tracy Letts), who’s depressive and currently unemployed but a giving and loving dad.

Some other plot elements include her love/hate connection to her hometown of Sacramento, her shame over residing in a section of the city that’s not the coveted wealthier one, and her eagerness to leave her Catholic high school for a good college in the East despite her lackluster academic performance.

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Self-assured, fastidious, unusual, written with sass and directed with sensitivity and style, Lady Bird is a year-end surprise that lands in 2017’s pile of mediocrity like a stray emerald in a pile of discarded rhinestones.”

Watch the trailer below:

Oct 07

“Divorce”: HBO’s Fictional Dramedy About the Process

“Divorce” is, in some ways, about how separation is easier declared than executed. Sonia Saraiya, Variety

Like the person at the party who breaks an awkward silence with an insightfully candid remark, “Divorce” feels like it’s exposing the inner workings of one of life’s most common romantic experiences. Ben Travers, IndieWire

Reviewers of the new dramedy Divorce, which premieres October 9th on HBO, are quick to point out that Sarah Jessica Parker‘s Frances is a character unlike Carrie on Sex and the City. In fact, she’s “a kind of anti-Carrie,” states Susan Dominus, New York Times, and…

…someone long married, living (brace yourself) in the suburbs, and working as a corporate recruiter, her arty dreams subsumed by financial necessity. Her husband — though not for much longer — is Robert (Thomas Haden Church), a real estate entrepreneur down on his luck. Frances is far from a starry-eyed romantic: She has cheated on her husband; she is a narcissistic oversharer, a foul-mouthed accuser, a weak-kneed manipulator. She is also, as played by Ms. Parker, deeply real and somehow appealing.

Frances, states Sonia Saraiya, Variety, is also “the show’s emotional center.”

Dave Nemetz, TVLine, about husband Robert: “…a profoundly sad man, a volcano of male resentment, and the childishly vindictive way he lashes out at Frances to soothe his wounded ego is both tough to watch and hilarious.”

More from Saraiya about Robert as well as the relationship between him and Frances, who in the course of their 10-plus years together have been raising two kids:

Robert has the demeanor of a military man without a war to fight, a Marlboro Man who’s run out of cigarettes. He has the bluster of a World War I veteran, delivering curt assessments that could be mistaken for declarations of war. But behind his red-cheeked machismo and surprising comfort with bodily waste, he is a man terrified that his justifiable anger is meaningless…(E)ach drives the other first to unbelievable rage, and then later, to surprising generosity. Their viability as a couple changes with every passing minute, making their own will-they/won’t-they arc, such as it is, feel just as unknowable to the audience as it is to the characters themselves. It’s possible to see why they fell for each other, even as it’s easy to see why they might be better off splitting up.

Following the decision to divorce, the couple tries both counseling and mediation (episodes three and four) before getting to the heavier-duty legal stuff.

Other cast members include Molly Shannon and Talia Balsam as friends of Frances. Shannon’s Diane is married to Nick (Tracy Letts).

Another important series element, which will be appealing to some and not to others, involves class issues. Saraiya: “’Divorce’ carries with it a degree of tiresome upper-middle-class angst about how hard it is to have so many shiny things.”

Esther Zuckerman, AVClub: “…Frances and Robert’s travails often amount to ‘white people problems’.”

And from Nemetz: “It’s an old cliché that money can’t buy happiness, but Divorce proves that in spades.”

Below is a brief teaser trailer that provides a glimpse into a common accusation occurring in couples therapy, that one partner was having an emotional affair:

Sep 26

“Indignation”: College Guy Meets Troubled Gal

James Schamus‘s new Indignation is a film adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. And David Edelstein‘s review title, “Indignation Is the Best Philip Roth Film Adaptation By a Mile,” is a sentiment echoed in various ways by other critics as well.

The plot summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.

Some family background, per David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Back in Newark, funerals for local boys are fueling the spiraling anxieties of Marcus’ father, Max (Danny Burstein). ‘The tiniest mistake can have consequences,’ he says, fearing that his straight-A student son will be led astray in pool halls and gambling dens. Max’s paranoia is scaring his levelheaded wife Esther (Linda Emond) and pushing Marcus away.

Sexually inexperienced, Marcus is at first conflicted about his attraction to the more open and emotionally fragile Olivia. Stephen Holden, New York Times:

After a separation, they warily reconnect, and Olivia, who has scars on her wrist, confesses to Marcus that she had a breakdown and attempted suicide. In Ms. Gadon’s sensitive performance, you can feel the vulnerability just beneath the surface of her apparent poise. Marcus isn’t worldly enough to understand fully the implications of her instability. But when Esther visits and meets Olivia, she immediately notices and pleads with her son to discontinue the relationship.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Very much a character-driven film, ‘Indignation’ focuses on its young protagonists as they movingly attempt to determine who they are both as individuals and as a possible couple.”

The movie’s 15-minute “grueling centerpiece,” according to Edelstein (Vulture) (and others), is the one “in which Marcus is summoned to meet Dean Caudwell [Tracy Letts] and finds himself literally — and, folks, I’m not misusing that word — fighting to hold his insides together…Caudwell is the embodiment of right-wing, Christian authority and its penchant for hypocrisy (the charge against Marcus is a refusal to compromise), and Marcus’s attempts to assert religious and philosophical independence only tighten his own noose. Caudwell leaves Marcus in ruins while barely raising his voice.”

You can see the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “’Indignation’ might be dismissed as a small, exquisite period piece, but it is so precisely rendered that it gets deeply under your skin. There are a lot of words, and every one counts. You feel the social pressures bearing down on characters who, in accordance with the reticence of the times, tend to withhold their emotions and suffer in silence.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he story and treatment keep inviting us to circle back to it and wonder what the characters might have done here or should have done there. Like the best wines and the best films, there’s a complexity to the finish, so that it reverberates with meanings beyond the obvious. ‘Indignation’ has the disconcerting quality of truth and is an altogether adult piece of work.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “The beauty of ‘Indignation’ can be found in how it builds, growing from a garden-variety coming-of-age story into a poetic, even prayerful, meditation on the pitiless vagaries of character and regret. Thoughtful and reserved, perhaps even to a fault, ‘Indignation’ winds up packing a wallop far greater than its modest parts might suggest.”

Jan 13

“August: Osage County”–A Strong Film Adaptation

Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for the semi-autobiographical Broadway play he’s now adapted for the screen. As described on IMDB, the film August: Osage County, directed by John Wells, is “(a) look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.”

Although the movie is the only version I’ve seen, it’s easy to envision how the play would also have powerfully and rivetingly revealed the various layers of family stuff involved. One who actually can make the comparison to the original, Scott FoundasVariety, concludes, “…(T)his two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better.”

When alcoholic poet Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing just days after he hires young Johnna (Misty Upham) to help take care of the house and his pill-popping cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep), the latter turns to her adult kids. There’s the middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the one who’s stayed nearby; the eldest, Barbara (Julia Roberts), who brings her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) from Colorado; and the flighty, self-involved Karen (Juliette Lewis), who lives in Florida and is recently engaged to slick and sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Also on the scene are Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale) and her husband (Chris Cooper) and their adult though seemingly emotionally stunted son (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Very little is seen of Beverly, by the way, who early on is found to have drowned himself. It’s the intensely dramatic interactions among different constellations of family members following the funeral that comprise the meat of the movie. Fortunately, there are sufficient doses of intermittent humor as well.

Watch the trailer for August: Osage County below:

More About Matriarch Violet

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “It’s both ironic and tragic that she’s suffering from mouth cancer. Her mouth burns and her tongue feels as if it’s on fire, she insists, but that doesn’t stop her from spewing verbal venom.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:  Her “…love comes laced with blunt criticism, humiliation and recriminations. Violet has no filter.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “…(S)he’s so drugged up on pharmaceuticals that it’s hard to say where the medicine leaves off and the self-medicating begins.”

Some Family Dynamics

Ian BuckwalterNPR: “Everyone here has pain, everyone has secrets, and while we join these characters for a short time, it’s easy to see that the cycles of lies, distrust, and abuse go back for generations, clinging to this family like the hot summer dust of the empty plains that surround them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Whatever secrets these people think they’re keeping, Vi lets them know that nobody slips anything by her. Worrying news makes way for tragedy, plus a whole string of awkward disclosures, which gives her fewer reasons to hold back.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “This is a story about people bonded by blood but doing what they must to destroy each other—partly out of fear and panic, but also out of twisted love. The more they reveal about themselves, and each other, the more they come to realize how they don’t know each other at all. In the stifling angst of an unbearable Oklahoma August, they merely occupy the same space in a house of strangers.”

Overall Reviews of August: Osage County

Owen Gleibermanew.com: “The fights, insults, and sadistic parent-child mind games, the powerhouse acting that shades into overacting (though I’ll be damned if you could say exactly when)…the movie is red meat for anyone who thrives on a certain brand of punchy, in-your-face emotional shock value.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “Streep is freaking Streep. You’d think nothing would surprise anymore, but her fierce, drugged, dying monster here is something to behold. And Roberts has never been better, bringing her own surprising icepick to the fight. Overall, the ensemble is every bit as good as you’d expect.”

Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger: “There’s quite a bit to enjoy here, particularly for fans of hurtful, overheated family melodrama. And of nasty sharp-tongued comedy as cold as ice, and black as tar.”

The Writer, Tracy Letts, Speaks

Letts, interviewed on NPR, believes the material asks these ultimate questions: “Do you have a choice? Are you your brother’s keeper? When does your responsibility to your family end, and when should your responsibility to yourself take over?”

In an article in Slant, Letts states the following about another key element:

…I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s ‘running things now’ was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: ‘Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.’ As opposed to allowing people to make their own choices, for good or ill.