Tag Archives: Greta Gerwig

Think Pink


by Hope Madden

The world today is split. On the one hand there is a rabid sect donning their finest sparkles in anticipation of Margot Robbie’s Barbie. On the other hand, there are those who cannot believe people are this unreasonably geeked over a movie about Barbie.

And then there are the Greta Gerwig fans, who perhaps have a complicated but mostly contemptuous relationship with the doll but will nonetheless stride through the pink boas and tiara glare to soak up whatever glorious wonder the filmmaker has to give us.

That was me, that last one. I’ve come to witness Gerwig’s hat trick.

Barbie, which director Gerwig co-wrote with Noah Baumbach (that slouch), delivers smart, biting, riotous comedy with more whimsy than anything this politically savvy has any right to wield.

It’s a role Robbie was clearly born to play. Barbie’s endless run of perfect days actually ends, and she has to seek the advice of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, perfection). You’ve seen the ads – she has to go to the real world to solve her problem. But there’s one hiccup. (That’s not true, there are plenty of them, but it all starts with this first one.) Ken stows away in the back of the Barbie Dream Car.

Ryan Gosling, the man behind the tan, plays Existential Crisis Ken and it’s possible he’s never been better. That’s a big statement because he was nearly perfect in Drive. Also, The Nice Guys. Also, Half Nelson. Plus, Blue Valentine.

He’s good. This is my point. But his Ken delivers all the self-effacing humor of The Nice Guys with sincere pathos and a vacuous tenderness it’s hard to describe.

And my god, that dance number!

Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Issa Rae and Alexandra Shipp also get to carve out some funny screentime, but the whole cast shines. Barbie does not work without a tightrope of a tone, and everyone walks it with their heels off the ground.

Gerwig’s lack of cynicism may be the thing that shines brightest in all three of her films. Lady Bird was the most open and forgiving coming of age film I’ve ever seen, and also probably the best. Who on earth thought we needed another Little Women until Gerwig mined it for the gorgeous feminism that always drove it?

Barbie is a brilliantly executed, incredibly fun, brightly colored, completely logical feminist statement that should be remembered come awards season.

Come On Feel It

White Noise

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“All plots move deathward.”

With an unusual foray into developing someone else’s work for the screen, Noah Baumbach delivers a satirical fantasy penned in 1985 that speaks so clearly of 2022 it’s almost absurd. Which makes the filmmaker’s approach to Don DeLillo’s White Noise that much more fitting.

The film follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) – pioneer in the field of Hitler studies at the College on the Hill – his wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig), her important hair, collective trauma and pudding pockets.

Jack is so preoccupied preparing for the international Hitler conference that he fails to notice how distracted Babbette has become. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), the oldest of their combined four children (one is Babbette’s, two are Jack’s, one belongs to both), notices. Her interest sets off a covert investigation that can’t even be slowed by the toxic airborne event that sends the family, station wagon and all, into quarantine.

The fascinating ensemble also includes Don Cheadle, whose Murray is hoping to establish an Elvis Presley power base at the university, and could use Jack’s in giving his plan more relevance.

The 2+ hour adventure takes unexpected turns, as does the tone of the film itself. Droll, prescient satire makes way for National Lampoon Vacation-esque exploits before finding a grim if tender resolution.

The rapid-fire dialog keeps hammering away, as if characters are talking at us rather than to each other. On its face, this wouldn’t seem to be the best approach for effective film satire. But in time, the terrific cast carves out a strange, comfortable world for the many declarations to live, and Baumbach nurtures an ironically effective strategy for realizing the novel’s many big ideas.

Check that, in the mid-80s these ideas were big. Now, they cast a post-internet and pandemic shadow that may be darkly comic, completely depressing, or both. From conformity to death culture, the cult of personality to disinformation and the warm embrace of consumerism, White Noise miraculously finds madcap, anxious entertainment in the blissfully unaware.

True to its title, White Noise throws plenty at you almost all the time. And while the overriding aesthetic wallows in a bemused detachment, the film ultimately embraces important details that hint at actual warmth. It’s a film that might leave you giggling, scratching your head, or convinced that we’re all doomed, but you’ll be damned near helpless against the strange beauty of synchronized shopping.

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.


Wagging the 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.


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.





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.