Lady Bird movie review

For inSing

LADY BIRD

Director : Greta Gerwig
Cast : Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Odeya Rush, Lois Smith, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen Henderson, Jake McDorman
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 34m
Opens : 12 February 2018
Rating : M18

Lady Bird is one of the last big awards season contenders to arrive on our shores. After an excellent showing at the Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations, this little movie comes with big hype.

‘Lady Bird’ is what the title character, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), calls herself. It is 2002, and Lady Bird is a high school senior in Sacramento. She has a contentious relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and is constantly trying to assert her own identity. She also doesn’t quite get along with her adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), whose girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) lives with Lady Bird and her family.

Lady Bird dreams of going to college in New York, but her mother insists on her going to one in California instead. The family is weathering financial difficulty, with Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggling to make ends meet. Lady Bird develops a crush on Danny (Lucas Hedges), her co-star in the school’s production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. She also has feelings for the cool musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Lady Bird’s desire for the acceptance of Kyle’s friend, the wealthy and popular Jenna (Odeya Rush), drives a wedge between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird undergoes formative experiences as she figures out who she’ll become and works through her relationships with those who care about her and, though she won’t admit it, whom she cares for too.

The film has enjoyed an immensely positive reception, with a 99% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect Lady Bird to be the greatest movie ever made and a life-changing rapture, but it is excellent as what it is – a coming-of-age indie comedy-drama.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created a film that’s personal but not self-indulgent, executing a masterful balancing act. Indie darlings are often either quite dull or stuffed with histrionics. It’s challenging to keep the dial centred, and Gerwig has more than succeeded. Lady Bird is never boring, but its characters don’t feel like overblown caricatures. Some interactions between characters are perhaps a little more heightened than they’d be in real life, but the film remains easy to connect to throughout.

The film’s authenticity comes in part from how Gerwig draws on her own experiences: like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, her mother was a nurse, and she attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Gerwig has gone from being one of the more prominent stars of the ‘mumblecore’ indie film movement to only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Perhaps her own experience as an actress has helped her draw out entertaining, sensitive and authentic performances from her cast.

The preternaturally talented Saoirse Ronan once again proves herself as among the finest young actors working. Lady Bird could easily have come off as obnoxious and insufferable, so it’s to Ronan’s credit that she is easy to root for – not despite, but because of her flaws. The character’s search for a direction in life, the tension between her and her parents, her sexual awakening and romantic relationships, and her angst towards her hometown – these are all things that teenagers have grappled with in one form or another. The balance of the universal and the specific is something that crystallises in Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird.

The testy bond between Lady Bird and her mother is something that has resonated strongly with audiences – Metcalf has said in interviews that people have told her that the film made them want to call their mothers afterwards. There is never any doubt that Marion loves her daughter, but even parents with the best intentions have difficulty articulating their love for their children. The film makes it easy to see things from both Lady Bird’s and Marion’s sides, with Metcalf taking great care in giving the character enough layers.

Letts, who often plays imperious, unyielding authority figures, brings welcome warmth to the role of Lady Bird’s father Larry. Larry must often be the mediator, since his wife and daughter are so headstrong, and he gets caught in the middle. He also bears the burden of the family’s financial difficulties but internalises this to try and minimise the heartache for everyone else, something many fathers can relate to.

Both of Lady Bird’s love interests are sufficiently distinct: Hedges’ Danny is awkward and sweet, while Chalamet’s Kyle is the artsy rebel-philosopher. This is different from your typical love triangle, and Lady Bird always retains agency such that it never feels like the plot device of a requisite romance is the driving force of the narrative.

The film’s depiction of high school friendship dynamics rings true as well – the way Lady Bird and Julie grow apart when Lady Bird gets accepted by the popular kids is handled with a little too much drama, but Ronan and Feldstein share excellent chemistry.

The way the authority figures are portrayed demonstrates the film’s maturity – the nuns and priests who run the Catholic school aren’t monstrous or ridiculously strict, they’re just a little detached from their charges because of the generation gap. Some fun is had at the expense of religion, but it never registers as bald-faced mockery.

Lady Bird is better approached as a low-key indie gem than as a masterpiece that will change the face of cinema forever. That’s not to downplay the accomplishments of its cast and crew, but one might be better positioned to take in the film’s gentle humour and quiet wisdom without the awards season baggage attached. Lady Bird is just that little bit more relatable, more entertaining and more personal than your typical coming-of-age film, benefitting from its writer-director’s perspective and its leading lady’s significant skill.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

For inSing

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Director : Martin McDonagh
Cast : Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 57 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh traverses from In Bruges to Outside Ebbing, after a detour caused by Seven Psychopaths, with his third feature film.

The film revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother grieving the death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). A year after Angela’s rape and murder, no arrests have been made. Mildred rents out three disused billboards (three guesses as to where they’re located), calling out Ebbing Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards draw a strong reaction from the Ebbing populace, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – not least because Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer. Both Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) take issue with the billboards, blaming Mildred for reopening that wound. Mildred still has a few people in her corner, including her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren), and James (Peter Dinklage), who harbours feelings for Mildred. Mildred hopes the billboards will put pressure on the police to solve the case, but unexpected, violent consequences ensue.

If Seven Psychopaths was McDonagh channelling Quentin Tarantino, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh channelling the Coen Brothers. It’s a happy coincidence that Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coens’ movies, has also scored McDonagh’s previous two films. It seems less coincidental that McDormand, oft-collaborator of the Coens and the wife of Joel Coen, plays the starring role.

However, this is no mere act of mimicry. McDonagh, who is also an accomplished playwright, has brought his own lyricism to each of his films. Three Billboards is the most serious film McDonagh has made, but it isn’t without its outstanding moments of pitch-black humour.

In part because of the pulpier elements of McDonagh’s two earlier films, one might go into Three Billboards expecting all the characters to be broadly-drawn archetypes. It seems almost by design that the audience thinks they have each player in this story figured out the moment we see them. “There’s the righteous mother,” “there’s the lazy cop”, “there’s the scumbag ex-husband”, that sort of thing. The surprises along the way are organic and well thought-out.

While Three Billboards wears its references on its sleeve, it subverts expectations with masterful subtlety. The dialogue, stuffed with words we can’t print, sounds authentic as spoken by these characters – especially impressive considering the writer-director isn’t American. The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri has a realistic bleakness to it, and does seem like the place where something awful might happen and the world at large just wouldn’t notice it.

McDormand leads an ensemble of talented actors who do the material justice and then some. When it comes to strong performances per capita, Three Billboards is at the top of the heap this awards season. All the performances are the right degree of over-the-top – colourful and exaggerated enough to grab the viewer’s attention, but not to the point of being cartoony.

McDonagh wrote the Mildred role with McDormand in mind, and the character plays to all McDormand’s strengths as an actress. Mildred is tough-as-nails, bitter and takes no guff from anyone. Beneath the unyielding exterior, she is grappling with unspeakable grief and frustration and is a deeply flawed, conflicted person. The dramatic move she makes in renting out the billboards stirs up trouble, just as she planned, but she ultimately gets more than she bargained for.

We’re conditioned to root for Mildred and against Chief Willoughby, so we’re naturally surprised when the Chief ends up being not an awful person. We won’t give away too much, but Harrelson is able to shade the character while making him a little larger than life, and the interplay between Willoughby and Mildred is intense but restrained.

Rockwell’s character goes through the most dramatic arc. Dixon is racist, lazy, belligerent and often abuses his authority – but that’s just how the character begins. Rockwell has often portrayed characters who are slimy charmers, but he digs deep here, delivering a layered, fascinating performance.

The supporting cast members all snap right into place. Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is believably conflicted as Mildred’s son. Hawkes is aggressive but not ludicrously so as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. Samara Weaving steals the show several times as Penelope, Charlie’s dim-witted girlfriend, showcasing delightful comic timing. Dinklage is likeable and just awkward enough as the designated ‘nice guy’ whose affections for Mildred are unlikely to be reciprocated.

Not everything here works: the film’s handling of race is clumsy and inconsistent, and as the film barrels towards its conclusion, a few noticeable plot contrivances start stacking up. As assuredly as McDonagh handles the tone, some viewers might still find it jarring when the film moves from its truly harrowing moments to its lighter-hearted ones.

Three Billboards succeeds as an indie darling-type film that is rough around the edges and is never too precious about itself. The film recently collected four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama and awards for McDormand and Rockwell. The film’s peculiar yet finely tuned mix of grimness and off-kilter humour keeps it interesting, and its performances, especially McDormand’s, are thoroughly riveting.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Manchester by the Sea

For F*** Magazine

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

Director : Kenneth Lonergan
Cast : Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWhile promoting Batman v Superman, Ben Affleck turned forlorn when the film’s negative reception was brought up. His expression went viral and was coined “Sadfleck”. Now, it’s his brother Casey’s turn to do the moping in this drama.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee keeps to himself and sometimes has terse confrontations with the apartment’s tenants. When Lee’s elder brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack, Lee is surprised to learn that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). Because Joe’s ex-wife Elise (Mol) is an alcoholic, Joe decided against giving her custody of Patrick. Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after Patrick. Lee’s sullen caginess makes it difficult for him and his nephew to bond meaningfully. Going back to Manchester-by-the-Sea unearths painful memories for Lee, whose marriage with his ex-wife Randi (Williams) ended under tragic circumstances. He dreads the prospect of permanently moving back, while Patrick is adamant against having his life uprooted and moving to Quincy with Lee.

Manchester by the Sea has been the subject of Oscar buzz ever since its premiere at the Sundance film festival in 2016. It’s on the “best of 2016” lists of numerous critics, has been repeatedly deemed “a masterpiece” and at the time of writing, is up for six Oscar nominations.

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We understand why it’s been such a hit with critics: it’s a character study about grief and loss that’s mature and largely subdued. In an awards season that takes place during a particularly fraught period in American politics, it’s not tackling any topical issues. We appreciate that despite the undercurrent of pain, it’s not oppressively bleak, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan allows the film to be gently humorous where appropriate. It avoids gloopy sentiment or overwrought histrionics and unfolds naturistically.

By shunning surface-level excitement, Manchester by the Sea feels swamped by mundanity. It’s not an easy film to get into because of its unhurried pace and uneventful nature. The film’s nonlinear structure takes a bit of getting used to, especially because there’s no obvious indication that certain scenes are flashbacks. As an examination of repressed emotions and the angst of the working class white male, Manchester by the Sea is painfully honest but can come across as self-indulgent. Its 137-minute running time is altogether too long, and the emotional impact delivered by a dramatic reveal in the middle of the film dissipates as it continues.

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Matt Damon was originally cast as Lee, and remains as a producer. Affleck’s leading turn has been raking in the plaudits, and deservedly so: it’s not a showy performance and is sensitively nuanced. Lee is flat-out unlikeable, and picks fights in bars because he has no outlet through which to channel his hurt and frustration. The reasons for Lee’s self-destructive tendencies and self-loathing are revealed as the film progresses. Affleck demonstrates an understanding of externalising grief, which can be handled clumsily in a lesser actor’s hands. It’s a performance that engenders equal amounts of sympathy and frustration – just when one thinks Lee might make a breakthrough, he falls back into a pattern of self-destruction.

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Hedges’ Patrick is written as more than the stock annoying teenager, and the dynamic he shares with Affleck works, even though the relationship goes through repetitive beats. Both Patrick and Lee are in dark places in their lives, but neither will open up to the other. There is some comedy derived from Patrick’s inept garage band, and that he’s juggling romantic relationships with two separate girls. There’s the danger that Patrick might turn out like his uncle, and if the film were more actively engaging, we’d be rooting for both to course-correct.

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Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi has garnered significant positive attention, given her relatively short screen time. The flashbacks show a happier time, when Lee and Randi’s disagreements were small and expected. The marriage implodes off-screen, and when Lee and Randi meet again years later, it is an emotional moment. Because nothing that exciting occurs, it dampens the visceral pain of the trauma that led to Lee and Randi parting ways.

While Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain nearly as much “woe is me” wallowing in self-pity as this review suggests, it is depressing by design, with brief glimmers of levity allowing the viewer to take a breath. Lesley Barber’s Baroque-inspired score is beautiful, but is sometimes slathered on too thick, and at odds with the muted realism Lonergan is aiming for. We comprehend that not all movies are meant to be entertaining in the traditional sense of the word, but while many are praising Manchester by the Sea as understated and sublime, it will generate apathy among more impatient viewers.

Summary: This awards season favourite is a strongly-acted portrait of grief that is sometimes too distant and meandering to be compelling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong