6 posts categorized "Coming-of-Age"

November 24, 2017

LADY BIRD — REVISITED

The Millennial Conformist

Or How to Learn to Love Stupidity Without Really Trying

LADY BIRD REVISITED 2/7/18

BY COLE SMITHEY

Since being drawn toward the magnetic Tomatometer to give “Lady Bird” a better grade than this flawed film deserved I’ve been watching and discussing French Films (“Le Samorai,” “My Golden Days,” “Murmur of the Heart,” “Rendez-Vous,” and “Les Valseuses”) with my podcast partner Mike Lacy on our series LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST). Context, it’s always there. Each of these French films blow “Lady Bird” out of the water. French Cinema is reliable. Watching “Lady Bird” in the midst of such powerful films was a lesson in hack work vs. quality Cinema. Admittedly, it took a second viewing of "Lady Bird" to catch the part where Greta Gerwig breaks an essential rule of dramaturgy regarding reliable protagonists. Saoirse Ronan's character is reliably unreliable in this department. 

Lady Bird

In preparation for our podcast discussion of “Lady Bird,” I went to my local 86th Street cinema on the Upper East Side and watched Greta Gerwig's over-hyped movie a second time. I discovered a litany of bogus character traits for the title character that paint a picture of an entitled, conniving, cheating, vapid, disloyal, snotty, conformist white girl going through a phony personality crisis so she can put-on her next “Basic” (à la “Ingrid Goes West”) identity as one more white female college student in New York City with rocks in her head. 

Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) objectives of getting laid and going to college far away from her parents are the plot engines that drive the film’s narrative.

A red flag goes up during the opening of the movie when Lady Bird jumps from the speeding car her mom is driving because she (Lady Bird) can’t handle having the conversation. Lady Bird isn’t just immature; she’s suicidal. Still, no psychiatric exam, therapy, or medication follows for our manic (possibly bi-polar or manic depressive) high school student with a nasty attitude. You might expect a serious response from a mom (Lauri Metclaf) who works as a shrink, but you will be sorely disappointed.

A cast on her broken arm is all Lady Bird needs to judge Danny (Lucas Hedges), a closeted gay boy she briefly dates before abandoning him after catching him kissing another boy. It will [ostensibly] take a few years for Christine (Lady Bird) to purchase her LGBT glasses. In the meantime it's just the "Me, me, me, me, me" all-day song).

She goes on to dump her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) in favor of hanging out with insufferable preps. 

Lady Bird gives up on the school play because she has no patience for Danny's burgeoning sexuality. Never mind that Danny and the school play are the most interesting things Lady Bird has going on in her life. She doesn't have any sense of loyalty to her own best friend. She is a dolt who also happens to be a poor judge of character.

Oh and the whole poverty thing, it's just a ruse. Who is anyone kidding, this family is not poor in any real definition of the word. The girl goes to a private school for crying out loud.

Lady bird

The fact that Lady Bird prefers “dry-humping” to penetration could be a potential deal-breaker for some would-be suitors.

The biggest coincidence between my own history with grading this movie comes after Lady Bird steals and ditches her teacher’s notebook containing all of his class records. Lady Bird’s expulsion-taunting subterfuge allows her and her students to tell the teacher his or her current grade based on the honor system. Lady Bird lies in order to squeak her grade from a “C+ or a B-“ to a B. It is this precise lie that allows Lady Bird to get into college. You couldn’t exactly call Lady Bird a model student, “bad animal” is more like it. She isn't even a narcissist for a good cause; Lady Bird's super-objective is to be the ultimate conformist. Her taste in music speaks volumes. Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews tells you all you need to know.

The story is set in 2002, before there were surveillance cameras everywhere. If Lady Bird pulled such a stunt in 2017, she’d be expelled from school and going to community college in her parents’ back yard.

So it is that narrative cracks spread far and wide in our anti-heroine of limited ethical and intellectual abilities. Lady Bird earns our disrespect when she insults her Ivy League-graduated step-brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) after being accepted into UC Davis. Rather than being happy about getting accepted into such a respected college, Lady Bird throws a spoiled brat temper tantrum and tells Miguel that the only reason he got accepted into Harvard was because he was a minority. Miguel rightfully calls Lady Bird a “racist,” as the film goes permanently off the rails. Why is the audience being asked to empathize with a racist? There's something fishy going on here.

Ladybird

Nobody can say all that they know. There are many more flaws in "Lady Bird" than I have mentioned here, but alas those secrets are safe with me since I'm evidently the only film critic around who sees "Lady Bird" for the misguided film it is.

I suspect that many audiences who return to "Lady Bird" will be disappointed at how the movie stands up on a second viewing. It's a much worse movie the second time around, I promise you.  

Let there be no confusion about my grading of “Lady Bird.” It is a movie that fails on the most important level of maintaining empathy with its faux non-conformist protagonist of dubious intent. The film's failings are masked by an obtuse use of music, quick-cutting, and some over-leveraged emotional gesturing between the mother and daughter to play to a viewer’s heartstring as the lasting theme of the movie. Deceit is the actual theme of the movie.

Don’t believe me? Watch “Lady Bird” twice and you will see everything I’ve expressed here. If I had it to do all over again, I’d give “Lady Bird” a D minus. 

My original review follows.

 

Ladybirdposter

Although dramatically flat, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age directorial debut covers its Mumblecore tracks with jabs of humor and a breeze of earthy authenticity.Set in Sacramento, California (Gerwig’s hometown), the story focuses on the fraught relationship between Lady Bird (a.k.a. Christine — played by Saoirse Ronan) and her overworked mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose emotions run hot or cold. Marion’s Scorpio tendencies are exacerbated by the family’s unemployed father Larry (wonderfully played by Tracy Letts in a thankless role).

The armpit city of Sacramento will forever be indebted to Greta Gerwig for making it seem like a much better place than it is to live.  

Lady-bird

It’s Lady Bird’s senior year at a private Catholic girls’ high school from which our self-named heroine attempts to assert as much independence as her small town surroundings will allow, which is to say more than any kid living in 2017 should expect.

Participating in the school play sets up a romantic endeavor with Lucas Hedges’s Danny, a boy with a secret. Talk about being mad about the wrong boy, Lady Bird is no judge of character or of sexual affiliation.

Lady bird

Other social opportunities arrive as predictable let-downs for our girl-with-a-problem. Even losing her virginity occurs with a whimper. Lady Bird (“Amelie” reference — check) wants/needs to get as far away from her mother, and Sacramento, as possible. You can’t blame her one bit.

But to be clear, "Lady Bird" is far from a perfect film, it's just not the mumblecore disaster you'd expect from Greta Gerwig — one of the mumblecore movement's prime progenitors. There are dozens of coming-of-age films that far outweigh this lightweight contender. Think "Kes" or "Murmur of the Heart." Greta Gerwig has a long way to go as a filmmaker before she can pretend to approach a Ken Loach or a Louis Malle, much less Céline Sciamma's tour de force "Girlhood" from 2015.

Lady

If Lady Bird were true to her character, she'd never speak to her mother again after asking mom for the "number" that represents the amount of money she spent raising her so that she (Lady Bird) can pay her back and have nothing to do with her ever again. Lady Bird's mom earned that amount of disgust from her daughter; she deserved it. Lady Bird doesn't have the courage of her convictions after all. If ever there was a signature mumblecore trait, this is it.

"Lady Bird" is a mediocre film about moving toward institutional conformity. I the words of the poet/singer/author Jim Carroll, "It ain't no contribution to rely on the institution to validate your chosen art or to sanction your boredom and let you play out your part."

Rated R. 94 mins. (C+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

This review was amended on 1/24/18. COMING SOON — THE LADY BIRD EPISODE OF LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) PODCAST where I explain why "Lady Bird" really deserves a D.

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October 23, 2017

WONDERSTRUCK — NYFF 55

WonderstruckAs I watched Todd Haynes’s latest film I kept asking myself, who is this movie for? It is not a children’s movie even though the story is split between the journeys of two preteens 50 years apart. The nostalgic tale doesn’t seem to tilted toward adult audiences unlikely to recognized themselves in the bi-polar storyline. Everything about this film is a disappointment. It is, by far, Todd Haynes’s weakest effort to date.

The movie is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by author and illustrator Brian Selznick, who also authored the film’s screenplay.

Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a 12-year-old deaf runaway on the mean streets of New York City circa 1927. Still Rose’s expression never wavers from that of a satisfied Cheshire cat. She seems emotionally and intellectually vapid. Rose wants to meet her silver screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who she watches in a silent film entitled “Daughter of the Storm.” Haynes sets Rose’s half of the film as a black-and-white silent movie in contrast to that of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy in search of his missing father. As it turns out, even Ben’s mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) is gone from his life. All Ben has to show for his familial history is a bookmark from “Kincaid Books,” a New York City bookstore. On the back of the bookmark is written, “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.”

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So, what seems to be a not-so romantic mystery dissolves into a puddle of unearned sentimentality. The film’s overwrought production design is fussy to distraction. There isn’t enough narrative substance to withstand the overwrought time periods on display. It’s easy to blame the bland source material for this film’s complete and utter failure, but a burning question remains about why the filmmaker behind such instant classic works as “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There” would go down such an obvious rabbit hole.

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Rated PG. 117 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)     


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January 14, 2015

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Fast Times at Ridgemont High“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a remarkable outlier in the teen movie genre even if tone-deaf critics like Roger Ebert panned the film upon its release in 1982. Screenwriter Cameron Crowe adapted the script from his popular novel “Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story,” about a year he spent “undercover” posing as a senior at Clairemont High School in San Diego. Crowe’s keen observations of early ‘80s teen culture provided director Amy Heckerling with a treasure trove of cultural identifiers to apply to the era’s iconographic teen archetypes.

Many of Heckerling’s exquisite casting choices proved prophetic. Revered actors such as Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Nicholas Cage (then Nicholas Coppola) got their starts in “Fast Times.” The movie was a forerunner to the John Hughes “brat pack” coming-of-age films that filled out the ‘80s teen-movie craze.

Episodic in structure and involving a series of equally balanced mini plots, the minutiae-filled movie is unique in the lexicon of teen films in that it is told from the perspective of its young middle class protagonists. Most of the fledgling characters are living adult lives in spite of their ill preparedness for the responsibilities of adult existence. Nearly everyone has a job and drives a car. No one talks about going to college as an interim step to contributing to society. As its title suggests, the times are moving faster than the teens can reasonably handle. Still, they put up a strong front.

Although the movie is populated primarily with cheesy Southern California pop rock from the likes of Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, and Don Henley the visuals tell a different story. Posters of punk groups like Blondie, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, and the B-52s fill the walls of Robert Romanus’s Mike “Damone” character, a high-school senior living on his own. Damone pays his rent and bills by scalping concert tickets and taking bets on sporting events. He’s a sexual know-it-all happy to share his smarmy methods with his best friend “Rat” (Brian Backer), a shy nerd with a crush on Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a classmate who works across the mall from the cinema where he works.

Fast TimesThe film’s straight-ahead approach to teen sexuality is one of its greatest strengths. Stacy is only 15, but she feels pressured to lose her virginity and master oral sex. Her sexual encounters, with a 26-year-old stud and with Damone, are less than romantic. Stacy’s subsequent pregnancy incites a crisis decision that meets with an anti-climatic resolution squarely in keeping with the reality of the times in which the story is set.

Informed by the similarly aged Heckerling’s and Crowe’s simpatico sensibilities toward their slightly younger generation, “Fast Times” cleverly employs drama and comedy in equal parts. Sean Penn’s brilliantly crafted stoner-surfer character Jeff Spicoli provides comic relief with an attitude and vocabulary that is shamelessly and unconsciously self-reflexive. Spicoli is pure superego and id. As such he gives the movie its most illustrious anti-hero, a guy who looks out at the raging surf and says to the waves, “let’s party.” Even James Dean never enjoyed such a gloriously punk moment of expression.

Fast Times

Rated R. 90 mins. (A-) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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July 28, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Spectacular NowThe Powerlessness of Positive Drinking —
Teen Alcoholism Has its Perks

“The Spectacular Now” is the work of inexperienced screenwriters. We know this because of their handling — or rather mishandling — of the film’s underlying theme of teen alcoholism. The sophomoric script-writing duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”) adapt their second Tim Tharp novel into a thematically ambiguous film in love with an idealized notionn of teen-male-invulnerability. Newbie director James Ponsoldt puts the camera in the right places, but exerts no corrective influence to compensate for the script’s shortcomings that crop up like gophers on an infested golf course.

Miles Teller (“Project X”) plays Sutter Keely, a romantically inclined kid living the confident life of a well-loved high school senior with the world at his feet. Still, Sutter is haunted by memories of his absent father (Kyle Chandler), who was sent packing by Sutter’s hospital nurse mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when Sutter was a boy. Sutter carries a flask of whiskey everywhere he goes. He mixes it with soda that he drinks from a large plastic cup while working as a sales clerk at a men’s clothing boutique. He also indoctrinates the girls he dates into drinking. His recent ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) asks him if he has yet turned his latest conquest Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) into a “lush.” We can suppose that every time Sutter steps behind the wheel of his car — which is frequently — that he’s over the legal limit.

The story attempts to atone for Sutter’s irresponsible behavior by painting him as a charming, otherwise well-behaved, young man. He’s even willing to date the homely Aimee as a rebound from his relationship with Cassidy his high school’s would-be Prom Queen. As unreliable protagonists go, Sutter Keely is a ringer.

Such teen romance melodramas used to be the province of television’s “ABC Afterschool Specials” in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The programs covered coming-of-age subjects, placing a moral lesson as the key to each episode. The programs were cheesy, but generally well acted. “The Spectacular Now” has strong performances going for it, but to what end? Sutter takes Aimee on a three-hour drive to meet up with his alcoholic dad. The experience is devastating to Sutter, whose footloose father would rather ditch the son he hasn’t seen in years so he can hang out with his loser pals at the local dive bar. Get it? Behold the Ghost of Alchie Future. The drive back doesn’t go so well. Aimee winds up in the hospital, and Sutter ends up with a guilty conscience. It’s inexplicable that he doesn’t get hauled off to jail. There isn’t any fallout for Sutter as a result of his unguarded drinking problem. Not only does Aimee not hold a grudge against him, she’s ready for Sutter to run off to the same college with her — no questions asked.

“The Spectacular Now” beats around its thematic bush about young people’s tendency to live for the moment, rather than considering the long-range implications of their actions. The film’s centerpiece sex scene cues its target audience that unbridled teen sex really is the bee’s knees. Evidently, teen alcoholism has its perks.

Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)



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June 02, 2013

Tiger Eyes

Tiger EyesAlthough tamed by two too many music-video-styled sequences, director Lawrence Blume's faithful adaptation, of his mother Judy Blume's popular young adult novel, has all the right instincts. Willa Holland is outstanding as the film's head-heart-and-loins protagonist Davey, a fierce force of feminine nature whose eyes do indeed match the feline demands of the movie's title — derived from a name she chooses for herself as part of branding her independence. The untimely death of her father sends the 17-year-old Davey on culture-shock relocation from New York City to Los Alamos, New Mexico. A brewing romance between Davey and a young American Indian man called "Wolf" (Tatanka Means) shows off Means's gift for sensitive understatement. Together, Holland and Tatanka share a fascinating romantic chemistry on-screen that compensates partially for the source material’s more prosaic dramatic elements.

Tiger Eyes" is an affecting coming of age drama; there won't be a dry-eyed audience member. It's intriguing to watch nuanced characters defy typecast in a heartfelt narrative form. The passion of the filmmakers is on the screen. I imagine Judy Blume is proud of her son's straightforward rendition of the story she wrote.

Rated PG-13. 92 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)



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March 05, 2013

Ginger & Rosa

VIDEO ESSAYS: THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE — GINGER & ROSA — CLASSIC: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL



Ginger & RosaWriter/director Sally Potter’s tantalizing “Ginger & Rosa” is a socially complex coming-of-age movie with teeth. Set in 1962 London, the Cold War permeates everything. The film’s opening sequence, showing an atom bomb explosion, contextualizes the film’s political aspirations. Teenagers Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert – daughter of celebrated director Jane Campion) are best friends from birth. Their mothers had them at the same time, in the same hospital. Sally Potter’s affinity for playing with duality — see “Orlando” — is firmly on display. Ginger leans toward intellectual gratification; Rosa gravitates to physical pleasure. They are two sides of the same coin, but only one can hope to achieve their shared dream of escaping the social traps that ensnared their mothers.

Energized by the threat of war around them, the girls take up the leftist cause to rid the world of nukes. Ginger’s activist position is informed by her pacifist father Roland’s (Alessandro Nivola) teachings. Roland served hard prison time for standing by his beliefs. Now he teaches in a University that allows him free reign to put his womanizing skills to use on an ever-changing group of adoring nubile students.

Roland is the worst kind of hypocrite. He humiliates Ginger’s mother Nat (Christina Hendricks) with pat arguments about her use of “emotional fascism” to excuse his insufferable behavior. Regardless, Ginger keeps up her fascination with her dad until he commits a sin against their trust.

“Ginger & Rosa” is part of a zeitgeist occurring in 2013 cinema that puts a premium on the kind activism and free thought exerted during the ‘60s. A jazz-heavy score that includes the music of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk works magic. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the film a beautiful period look that never feels confined. Here is an unadulterated personalized paean to humanitarian ethics — be they issues of social equality, peace, or such fundamental traits as dignity and respect.

Rated PG-13. 89 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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