LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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THE NICE GUYS (2016)

May 29, 2016

nice guys Greetings again from the darkness. Shane Black sold his first screenplay at a very early age which led him to become something of a phenom with the success of that film, Lethal Weapon (1987). Later, he disappeared from Hollywood for about 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 by directing his own terrific script with the immensely entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (my favorite movie of that year), and then hitting big-budget time with his script for Iron Man 3. This time, Mr. Black (directing and co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) returns to the detective-farcical-comedy-mystery-action genre and even adds an element of being a 1970’s period piece.

Black’s rapid-fire wise-cracks were perfect fits for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and for this project he’s working with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe … both fine actors, though neither known for their comedic work. What’s clear from the beginning of the film is that both Gosling and Crowe are fully committed to the material and their respective characters. Gosling plays a boozy Private Detective and single dad who just can’t quite get things right, while Crowe plays a hired-hand bruise type – think of his Bud White in L.A. Confidential (1997), only with an extra 50 pounds (or did he borrow Eddie Murphy’s Norbit fat suit?) and a lot of miles. These two damaged boys play off each other very well, and with Black’s dialogue and visual gags, the film provides a good number of laugh out loud moments … more silly than the sophomoric humor that’s so pervasive at multiplexes these days.

Of course for comedy to really click, there needs to be some type of story to follow. In the opening scene a young boy (Ty Simpkins) watches as a car slams through his house, culminating with a “model/actress” named Misty Mountains meeting a not-so-pleasant ending. We then learn that Gosling’s Holland has been hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Mountains – with two significant exceptions. Simultaneously, Amelia has hired Crowe’s Jackson to convince Holland to stop searching for her. Soon enough, Holland and Jackson are working together on the “case” that mixes in the Auto industry (Big 3), Porn industry, Justice Department (government conspiracies), environmental protestors, Killer Bees, LA parties, LA smog, The Waltons (John Boy), The Rockford Files, Detroit, and Richard Nixon … all hot topics in this 1977 era.

As much as the story is needed, it really doesn’t much matter. This is a movie of moments … some of them featuring funny words, while others focus on pretty astute physical comedy. Gosling (and his stunt double) provides some pretty impressive gags as he is bounced and slammed around for most of the run time. The surprising heart of the film … and moral core … is Holland’s daughter Holly played by Angourie Rice. Despite the title, she is really the only “nice guy” in the whole film, and her good-hearted nature keeps us rooting for Gosling and Crowe, despite their flaws.

Other support work comes from Matt Bomer as a “John Boy” hit man, Keith David, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta (quick, name another Yaya), Beau Knapp (as the toothy Blueface), Jack Kilmer (Val’s son as a “projectionalist”), and Kim Basinger (re-teaming with her LA Confidential co-star, Crowe). Also playing a significant role are the mid-to-late 1970’s vehicles, the period music and houses and décor that puts us right in the moment, and the clothes and hairstyles that are sure to inspire a chuckle or two.

Fans of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will surely find plenty of laughter here … despite one of the worst trailers in recent memory and even if the film is lacking the one thing it advertises – nice guys.

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