Tag Archives: Greta Gerwig

Once More, with Feeling

Little Women

by Hope Madden

Just when you think They’re making Little Women again? Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective.

Gerwig’s presentation tosses sentimentality to the wayside, thankfully. The vibrant retelling brims with empathy, energy and laughter as well as those prickly emotions that dwell within a family.

In fact, settling into those very petty realities of sisterhood is a conscious choice Gerwig makes with her retelling. Those who’ve always controlled what we see may see nothing of value in so mundane a story as that of four somewhat coddled, routinely bickering sisters on the precipice of adulthood, but who says those men are right?

Gerwig understands and illustrates the political, economic and often lonesome choices to be made, couching those in the equally honest tensions of disappointing your sisters when you choose.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in clear-eyed ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints and expectations.

Self-discovery and camaraderie still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig’s avatar in the brilliant Lady Bird, is impeccable as ever. It’s her sometimes frenetic, sometimes quiet performance that delivers Louisa May Alcott’s own sense of lonesome independence.

Ronan’s flanked by superb supporting work including that of Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her character into the sister we can best understand.

In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.





Birdhouse in Your Soul

Lady Bird

by Hope Madden

Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, may be the most delightfully candid and refreshingly forgiving coming-of-age film I’ve seen.

The great Saoirse Ronan—because honestly, is there now or has there ever been a more effortlessly talented 23-year-old?—plays Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Uniformed senior at Sacramento’s Immaculate Heart, Lady Bird is a work in progress.

Ronan is surrounded by talent. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) shines as a sweetly gawky budding thespian while, as Lady Bird’s devoted bestie Julie, Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) is heart-achingly wonderful.

Tracy Letts, playwright turned go-to character actor, proves again his natural ability in his newer profession as LB’s softie father. But it’s Laurie Metcalf who matches Ronan step for step.

As Lady Bird’s tough, even scary, mother, Metcalf is near-perfect. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rosanne star nab her first Oscar nomination for a turn that’s brave, funny, hard to watch and painfully authentic.

Lady Bird’s greatest desire is to escape Sacramento—“the Midwest of California”—in favor of someplace, anyplace, with culture. Preferably a liberal arts college in NYC. But her grades, her mom and her family’s financial situation present some (often hilarious) obstacles.

Though the film is hardly a straight-up comedy, its irreverent humor is uproarious. I laughed louder and more often during Lady Bird than any film this year.

The plot and the comedy are less the point here than you might expect. They are really just a device Gerwig uses to explore adolescence and its characteristic stage of reinvention. She throws in the surprisingly accurate image of a family’s financial struggle to boot, just to make sure we never mistake this for a John Hughes film, or, God forbid, Perks of Being a Wallflower.

No, this is not a cheese-clothed indictment of all the ills facing adolescents. It’s Rushmore with less camp and more authenticity, and that’s got more to do with Gerwig than her formidable cast.

Though Lady Bird’s landscape is littered with coming-of-age tropes, there is wisdom and sincerity in the delivery. Gerwig offers genuine insight rather than nostalgia or, worse yet, lessons to be learned. The result ranks among the best films of the year.





Mothers and Son

20th Century Women

by Hope Madden

Has it been six years since Mike Mills explored father/son relationships and the coming of middle age with Beginners? Insightful, emotionally complex and kind, the film marked Mills as not only a director of substance, but a writer with integrity and wit.

Not that it could have predicted 20th Century Women.

What a joyous conundrum this film is. Set in 1979, the film looks on as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) maneuvers the troubles of adolescence, societal sea change and his loving if enigmatic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening).

Too practical and pragmatic for the women of 1979, too independent and wise for her own generation, Dorothea is a woman without a timestamp. It gives her a gravitational pull, drawing the fierce and the unusual to her like satellites.

Those in her orbit – besides her pubescent son – are punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), troubled teen Julie (Elle Fanning), and misplaced hippie William (Billy Crudup).

The cast is uniformly terrific, but Bening is a spectacle. A collector of friends, she’s still a solitary figure, one who looks on the relationships and complications in her life with a strange remove – almost like an anthropologist.

Dorothea is, from her son’s point of view, unknowable. Bening more than manages to embody that frustrating reality of a parent whose behavior seems entirely natural and yet almost alien. And she does it with such charm and humor.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in 20th Century Women is the humor – the film, like life, is peppered with laugh out loud moments that help make even the barely endurable pain of adolescence enjoyable.

Mills falls back at times on a punk rock undercurrent that creates a wonderful energy as well as a thoughtful theme for the time in history and in Jamie’s life. As Abbie puts it, the chaos of punk is comforting because it’s about, “When your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it.”

It’s a line that’s almost too perfect, as this cast is almost too perfect. This seems to be the quiet wonder of Mike Mills: he puts his own complicated, insightful and emotionally generous writing into the hands of genuine talent.

Good call.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Wagging the Dog

Wiener-Dog

by George Wolf

So Todd Solondz’s new film is called Wiener-Dog?

Is this a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse? Do we catch up with Dawn Wiener and see how her life has turned out?

Well, no, and…sort of.

Dawn (now played by Greta Gerwig) is just one of the perfectly odd owners of the titular dachshund. From an introverted boy, to Dawn, to a young brother and sister, to a sad sack film school professor (Danny DeVito), and finally to a sick old woman (Ellen Burstyn), the sweet pooch connects vignettes full of Solondz’s bleak, darkly comic worldview.

During the film school segment, DeVito’s Professor Schmerz speaks wistfully of wanting to write his great screenplay, one full of memories, pain, and dreams. And, he says, “I wanted it to be funny.”

That sounds an awful lot like Solondz refusing to apologize for his challenging approach, and good for him. Wiener-Dog is funny, sometimes very funny, and early on you wonder if this film might herald a more hopeful, optimistic Todd.

No, same Todd. Ruminations on death and regret permeate each segment, punctuated by painfully harsh situations and coal black, wince-inducing humor. As the incredibly sweet wiener-dog moves from owner to owner, Solondz reminds us to appreciate all the souls (pets included) that come in and out of our lives, and the effect they each have on our mutually shared journey…because, you know, we’re all headed for the same fate anyway.

Solondz is not for every appetite, but his vision is unique, and this may actually be his most accessible film to date.  With its old school intermission and two musical odes to a canine hero, Wiener-Dog feels almost light-hearted…until it brings you back to a universe full of comic despair.

So enjoy, and good luck getting “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” out of your head.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





A Beacon of Hope for Lesser People

Mistress America

by George Wolf

If you thought director Noah Baumbach was turning all populist after While We’re Young, take heart! At my recent screening of Mistress America, five people walked out within the first twenty minutes, apparently put off by hilariously flawed characters who talk to themselves, but at each other, without mercy.

Their loss.

It’s a charming, wonderfully offbeat, fast-paced dialogue fest, and a perfect vehicle for Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach.

Gerwig stars as Brooke, a busy New Yorker who seems happy to get a visit from her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke – impressive), an 18 year-old student at a nearby college. Brooke bombards Tracy with stories of her exciting life and social calendar (“He’s the kind of person I hate – except I’m in love with him!”), instantly gaining an admirer. Tracy’s reserved demeanor is no match for hurricane Brooke, and soon Tracy and two friends are joining Brooke on a mission to persuade her rich old boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) into bankrolling her plan for a new restaurant/hair salon/cool place to be combo.

The gang ends up crashing a party hosted by Dylan’s wife (loves these names) Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire may or may not have stolen Brooke’s idea for a line of t-shirts, and the visit descends into a madcap frenzy of incidents and allegations. As characters move throughout the rooms of Dylan’s lavish house, Baumbach stages it to perfection, much like a high school play directed by a coked-up Woody Allen.

Underneath the inspired insanity, though, lies a love letter to the written word. Tracy desperately wants to join her school’s literary club, and she uses Brooke as the basis for a short story that she hopes will be accepted into their magazine.

As the characters’ continue their rapid fire, often non-sequitur dialogue, it’s offset with Tracy’s voiceover reading of the measured, wonderfully flowing prose of her short story. This not only puts a spotlight on the art of writing, it cleverly reinforces the film’s undercurrent of self-delusion.

Brooke lives to define herself, as Tracy so eloquently puts it, as “a beacon of hope for lesser people,” regardless of how well her definition aligns with reality. “Lesser” people’s descriptions aren’t as welcome, a fact beautifully illustrated by a scene where Brooke is recognized by an old high school classmate. Gerwig is a true wonder in the role, combining comic timing with the depth needed to make Brooke sympathetic no matter how much you want to dislike her.

Will Mistress America be the movie where the masses (minus those five party poopers from my screening) get hip to Gerwig’s unique talents?

Let’s hope so.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 





Two Indie Gems for Your Queue

Earlier this year the indie gem Frances Ha was released, not that the world noticed. Well, world, here’s your opportunity to make amends, because this loosely articulated but deftly crafted character study of a New York dork could come home with you today on DVD.

The creative pairing of unrepentant misanthrope, writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and unabashedly likeable writer/star Greta Gerwig, the film gives Baumbach the opportunity to explore the lives of damaged neurotics, as usual, but gifts us with a protagonist we cannot help but love. As Frances tumbles, limbs akimbo, out of her arrested adolescence and into her long-dormant adulthood, a delightful journey emerges.

For something as impressive, if not quite so effervescent, you must see Baumbach’s masterpiece of awkward family dysfunction, The Squid and the Whale. This dark, semi-autobiographical comedy follows a self-absorbed adolescent, his divorcing narcissist parents, and his perhaps irrevocably weird little brother. Baumbach’s wicked writing created endless opportunities for the film’s dream cast, boasting, among other triumphs, the most brilliant performance of Jeff Daniels’s career.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQEnAtMxVXw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpg1f6ZVxh0