LADY BIRD: genuine and entirely fresh

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD

In Greta Gerwig’s triumphant debut as a writer-director, Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a Sacramento teen in her final year of high school. I’ve seen lots of good coming of age movies and lots of high school movies, but rarely one as fresh and original as Lady Bird. Gerwig is an insightful observer of human behavior, and she gets every moment of Christine’s journey, with all of her aspirations and impulses, exactly right.

Movies rarely explore the mother-daughter relationship, but this is the biggest thread in Lady Bird.  Christine and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) deeply need each other but just can’t get out of each other’s way, perpetually on each other’s very last nerve. Christine insists on being called “Lady Bird”, rejecting even the name her mother gave her.  From the very first scene to the last, Lady Bird probes how this most complex relationship evolves.

A girl’s relationship with her father is also pretty central, and the great writer Tracy Letts’ understated performance as the dad is extraordinary.  Letts can play a despicable character so well (Andrew Lockhart in Homeland), I hardly recognized him as Christine’s weakened but profoundly decent father.  The dad is a man whose career defeats have cost him his authority in the family and he is suffering silently from depression.  Yet he remains clear-eyed about the most important things in his children’s lives and is able to step up when he has to.  It’s not a showy role, but Letts is almost unbearably authentic.

There isn’t a bad performance in Lady Bird.  Ronan soars, of course.  The actors playing her high school peers nail their roles, too, especially Beanie Feldstein as her bestie.

Lady Bird’s soundtrack evokes the era especially well. Thanks to Sheila O’Malley for sharing Gerwig’s letter to Justin Timberlake, asking to license Cry Me a River. It’s a gem.

Visually, Gerwig is clearly fond of her hometown, and fills her film with local landmarks. It’s not my favorite California city (and I’ve worked in the Capitol), but Sacramento has never looked more appealing than in Lady Bird.  I did really love the shots of the deco Tower Bridge and the Tower Theater sign.

I don’t care for Gerwig’s performances as an actress, and, in writing about them, I have not been kind. As a director, she is very promising, eliciting such honest and singular performances from her actors and making so many perfect filmmaking choices.  As a writer, she’s already top-notch.  Write another movie, Greta.

another look at BROOKLYN

Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN
Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN

The Movie Gourmet saw Brooklyn again last weekend with The Wife, and I liked it better the second time around.  That’s saying something because it’s already #4 on my Best Movies of 2015.  (The only three movies that I admired more weren’t nominated this year.)

Here’s my original post  on Brooklyn, when it was first released.   This time – even though I knew what was coming – I was much more emotionally involved in the story.  I predicted that Brooklyn would especially appeal to women, but even my male poker buddies who saw it told me that they “were rooting for the Italian guy”.

Saoirse Ronan is so brilliant in Brooklyn.  I expect Brie Larson to win the Best Actress Oscar for Room, but Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) and Ronan are equally deserving.

On Sunday evening, The Revenant is going to beat Spotlight for the Best Picture Oscar. I rated Brooklyn the highest of the Oscar-nominated movies, even over The Revenant and Spotlight, and I’m sticking with that assessment.

BROOKLYN: Saoirse Ronan brings alive satisfying romantic drama

Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN
Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN

Saoirse Ronan brings alive the satisfying mid-century romantic drama Brooklyn.  Ronan plays a very young woman who leaves her Irish small town in 1952 and, after a difficult start, builds a life in Brooklyn.  When she must return to Ireland for a visit, things gets complicated.  It’s a coming of age story and a romance and a study of the loneliness that comes with immigration.

Ronan’s performance is exquisite.  Her character is neither talky nor expressive, yet Ronan conveys her wit and profound feelings in every situation.  An uncommon acting talent, Ronan burst on the scene in the pivotal role as the little sister in Atonement, filmed when she was just 12.  Since then, she’s made the girl power action flick Hannah and the wry The Grand Budapest Hotel (she was the relentlessly loyal girlfriend with the birthmark of Mexico on her cheek), along with a variety of other films that illustrate her versatility. She will be nominated for Best Actress for this performance in Ronan, which at times rises to the profound.

Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN
Saoirse Ronan in BROOKLYN

The director John Crowley has done an excellent job here. Brooklyn looks great – watch for the differing color palettes in the Irish and Brooklyn scenes, and it’s remarkably well-paced. Crowley is an excellent story-teller – I loved his early Irish indies Intermission and Boy A (one of my Best Movies of 2008). The Irish scenes in Brooklyn were shot in the real town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, where the story is set. There’s an especially moving scene with an Irish song – brilliant.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially the always reliable Jim Broadbent. Brid Kelly nails the role of Miss Kelly, a shopkeeper who is remarkably enthusiastic about her own malevolent small-mindedness. If Ronan’s performance weren’t so brilliant, Julie Walters would steal this movie as our heroine’s Brooklyn landlady. Jessica Paré (Mad Men) is also very good (and has Brooklyn’s biggest laugh line).  And child actor James DiGiacomo is unforgettable.

With its focus on the protagonist’s relationships with her family members and girlfriends and the question of which suitor she’ll pick, Brooklyn is a “woman’s picture” (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Well-crafted and satisfying, Brooklyn is a safe bet to have wide audience appeal and to earn Ronan an Oscar nod.

Hanna: girl power to the max

Here is a paranoid thrill ride starring Saoirse Ronan as a 16-year-old raised in the Arctic Circle to be a master assassin by her rogue secret agent father (Eric Bana), and then released upon the CIA.  She is matched up against special ops wiz Cate Blanchett.

The story relies on two novelties. First, a teenage girl is raised to speak 20 languages fluently and kill people with her hands.  Second,  the same teenage girl is raised to have no familiarity with electricity, music and other teens.  Because Ronan is perfect and the pacing flies along, sthe story works. Hanna is ably directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist).

The Way Back

The Way Back is inspired by the story of a 1940 escape from a Siberian prison; three men slipped out of the gulag and walked out of Siberia, across Mongolia, across China’s Gobi Desert, through Tibet and over the Himalayas to freedom in India – a trek of 4000 miles.  This is not a spoiler, because, at the very beginning of the movie, we are told that three men make it from the gulags to India.  The remaining dramatic tension is in finding out which three of the seven who start the journey will finish it.

Of course, director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Master and Commander) knows how to make a movie, and it is beautifully shot on locations chosen to illustrate the magnitude of the distances and the challenges.  It is well acted, especially by Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell.

It’s a tremendous survival tale that results in a good, but not great movie.  It comes down to this:  eleven months of trudging through dangerous, unfamiliar territory while suffering from starvation and exposure is really impressive, but not that engaging.