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Josh Reviews Lady Bird

Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird tells the story of a teenaged girl, Christine (though she prefers to go by “Lady Bird” — her given name in that, as she says in the film, “it was given to me, by me”) growing up in Sacramento.  Lady Bird is desperate to get out of Sacramento, and she has plans to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast, though the combination of her family’s tight finances and her own poor grades seems like an insurmountable obstacle to that dream.  The film unfolds over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year in high school.  We see her move through two romantic relationships and different friend circles, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother, and an exploration of various interests (such as her involvement in the school’s drama troupe, in which she finds that the only roles she can get are made-up parts like “the tempest” in The Tempest).

I have always enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s work as an actress, but in Lady Bird (her first film in which she is solo-credited as a writer and director) we see the announcement of an extraordinary talent behind-the-camera.  I absolutely adored this film.  It’s a riveting, wonderfully honest look at adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood.  The film is very funny, and also deeply emotionally affecting.  I was in tears for much of the second half.  I love a great coming-of-age film, and Lady Bird steps instantly into the pantheon.

The film is anchored by yet another incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan (who was so great in Brooklyn).  The film is blunt in depicting how annoying a super-sure-of-themself teenager can be; how selfish and destructive and clueless even a sweet, trying-to-be-good teenager usually is.  This wouldn’t work if the actress playing Lady Bird wasn’t able to win us over with the character’s inner life, with her warmth and the passion with which she feels everything in her day-to-day life.  Ms. Ronan is brilliant in the role, taking what is already a well-written, thoughtfully crafted strong female character and elevating it into an instantly memorable performance that truly sings.  It’s a fantastic piece of work.  And Ms. Ronan’s effortless skill at her accent (masking her natural Irish accent) is quite impressive.

Ms. Ronan is surrounded by a spectacular ensemble of actors, just as Lady Bird’s character is surrounded by a wonderful group of supporting characters who have each been crafted by Ms. Gerwig with attention and love.  After Ms. Ronan, the film’s next stand-out is Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion.  This is a phenomenal performance, richly textured.  Marion and Lady Bird have an often antagonistic relationship, and Ms. Metcalf plays those dramatic moments with … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jackie

Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s intimate and moving film Jackie, which chronicles the days immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963.  The film uses as a framing device an interview of Jackie by Theodore White for Life magazine conducted a week later.  The film occasionally flashes back to Jackie’s life in the White House before the murder of her husband, most notably her famous televised tour of the White House.  But the film’s focus is on Jackie’s experiences in the hours and days immediately following JFK’s assassination.

Jackie.cropped

Natalie Portman is magnificent in the lead role.  She could have easily allowed her costumes to carry the acting load for her, but Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that biopic trap.  She’s riveting from beginning to end.  As with Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Lincoln, one of the first things that struck me about Ms. Portman’s performance was her depiction of Jackie’s voice.  It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but it works wonderfully.  I’ve seen other great actors vanish beneath the weight of a faux accent, but here again Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that trap.  She inhabits the character fully, and the film’s structure gives her a wealth of emotionally rich moments to play.

By focusing its story on Jackie and her experiences in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, the film finds a narrative power and an emotional intimacy.  It’s devastating to watch Jackie go through this horror, and in watching her pull herself back together after this unimaginable tragedy one cannot be anything less than bowled over by her courage and her strength.  The film’s climax is the moment in which Jackie suggests the concept of the Kennedys as “Camelot,” and this brilliant piece of political myth-making on Jackie’s part is the perfect encapsulation of not just her intelligence, but her fierce will to be the author of her own story.  This was not a woman who was going to allow others to chart her life’s path.

The film’s laser-tight focus on just the few days immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy gives it an entirely different, and more gripping, feel than most prestige bio-pics.  Jackie depicts famous events that shook the United States and that still reverberate today.  And yet, the film is surprisingly intimate.

I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy.  In Jackie, we watch so many intimate moments with the newly-widowed Jackie, moments that I can’t imagine anyone could have known about.  I expect that there’s a lot in this film that was extrapolated by interviews and writings of the time, … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Greenberg

February 21st, 2011
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I was really captivated by The Squid and the Whale when I first saw it, and I think that first viewing made me interested for life in whatever future projects writer/director Noah Baumbach would undertake.  I was bummed to have missed Greenberg when it was released to theatres last year, but was happy to catch up with it on DVD last month.

Ben Stiller plays the titular Greenberg: Roger Greenberg.  A tightly-wound fellow, Roger Greenberg has returned to Los Angeles after many years away (and, apparently, a brief stay in a mental institution).  While his wealthy brother, Phillip (Chris Messina) is out of town with his family, Roger has moved into his large house.  While Phillip has given Roger some projects as an ostensible reason for his visit (namely to use his carpenter skills to build a new doghouse for the family pet), it’s clear that the main reason for his stay is to somehow find himself again, and perhaps to return some stability to his life.

Though the film is called Greenberg, the movie opens by allowing us to spend a significant amount of time with a young woman named Florence (played by Greta Gerwig).  She is Phillip Greenberg’s assistant/nanny, and she’s assigned with taking care of some household chores in the family’s absence, and also to assist Roger if he needs help.  It’s that last assignment that proves tricky.  Though there’s a spark of attraction between the two, the young, cheerful Florence doesn’t quite know what to make of the occasionally depressed, always difficult forty year-old Roger.

As always, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach (he shares story credit with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is able to mine a lot of comedy from the painfully awkward collisions of slightly-damaged people.  Well, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that Roger Greenberg is more than just slightly damaged.  Mr. Baumbach and Mr. Stiller make brave choices in allowing their lead character to be extraordinarily unlikable at times.  The film is very funny on occasions, and much of that humor is derived from Greenberg’s neuroses (such as his proclivity for writing long letters of complaint to any agency or business that has offended him in the slightest).  But the film is also tough to watch at times.  Greenberg’s insecurities cause him to lash out at those people trying (perhaps against their better judgment) to be in his life.  In particular, he’s terribly cruel to Florence at several points in the film, in a way that really dares the audience to give up on this character.

But somehow — and this is really a testament to Mr. Baumbach’s skill as a writer/director — we never quite do, and

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