Tag: greta gerwig

Lady Bird


Lady Bird (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who’ve grown up poor will likely find more than a handful of truths in “Lady Bird,” a strong directorial debut from Greta Gerwig who is known for starring as quirky but highly relatable characters in independent comedies. Here, our heroine named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird in order to assert her independence, is an extension of the type of characters Gerwig has played, but she is also an original creation because the screenplay defines her needs and yearnings through her numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. She may not be likable all the time but she is endlessly fascinating.

A mother-daughter relationship holds the center of the film. It is appropriate that each time Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), share a scene, there is a fiery energy flickering underneath their interactions. Although they tend to point out one another’s differences—sometimes differences so superficial we wonder why one bothers to bring them up at all other than to incite something—they are more alike than they realize or care to admit. Notice that even when they agree about a particular topic in general, Lady Bird and Marion find one perspective from which they disagree which leads to either ferocious arguments or deafening silences.

Despite these clashes, however, the screenplay manages to underline the love shared between parent and child without coming across syrupy or soap-like. Relationships that Lady Bird forges throughout the picture may change but we are certain right from the opening scene that the title character’s bond with her mother, as dysfunctional as it is, will remain unchanged, for better or worse.

A stark difference can be noted in how Lady Bird chooses to interact with her peers in Catholic school. She is readily able to try on new skin, is occasionally vulnerable to what they might say or think about her, and so badly wishes to be accepted in some way. This is where Ronan’s intelligent performance comes in. Less experienced performers might have painted the character in extreme brushstrokes depending on whether she is at home versus school. Instead, as the picture goes on, Lady Bird’s contradictions begin to bleed into one another in a way that makes sense and specific to a character who thinks she knows it all but one who is actually just trying to figure it out as life unfolds before her. This is a story about a teenager about to learn how it is like to put on the mask of being a young adult.

Moving at a breezy pace with numerous snappy dialogue, the picture has a certain glow about it that makes one think of coming-of-age movies from the ‘70s. Strip away references to September 11 terrorist attacks, Alanis Morissette playing on the radio, and bulky cell phones, the story could have been set in any decade post-‘60s. The writer-director’s goal might have been to create images that would pass as if one were looking inside an important memory, events that have great influenced a person’s perspective or lifestyle. Or it might be the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a dreamy, sunny, suburban area of Sacramento. It works either way.

“Lady Bird” understands the hardships of being an ordinary teenager who yearns for more—more love, more acceptance, more money, more freedom. Captured beautifully is the every day of being reminded consistently, sometimes not so subtly, that she will likely fail to do anything spectacular or noteworthy. Yet despite an ordinary protagonist who thinks she can do better than those who have become merely byproducts of Sacramento living (“the Midwest of California,” as she claims), the writer-director treats her with love and respect anyway. Clearly, the picture has affection for young people.

Frances Ha


Frances Ha (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

All is sparkly and happy between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend until Sophie (Mickey Sumner) confesses that she wishes to move out of their apartment and move in with a person called Lisa. The neighborhood is supposed to be nicer than the one they live in now. Sophie is Frances’ anchor and so when they no longer share the same space and have a chance to see each other all the time, Frances must get accustomed to being on her own. To Frances, losing Sophie proves more of a challenge than a recent breakup.

“Frances Ha,” written by Noah Baumbach and Gerwig, reminds me of a high school freshman assignment teachers like to assign in the beginning of the year: an “I Am” poster meant to illustrate the different aspects of oneself. Here, we get a real sense of the main character and I was surprised with how invested I was when it comes to every digression from the main plot. In a way, the film is not about plot. Perhaps it is meant to be a collage.

Gerwig is in every scene and there is not one moment where she fails to snag our attention. She can be jumping about and running around the streets of Brooklyn to search for an ATM or sitting in her apartment looking like her world is about to end. Either way, Gerwig finds ways to make us want to give Frances a big hug. Her positivity is infectious and so we sympathize when things do not go her way—even if she is to blame sometimes—and are uplifted when something nice happens.

Deciding to present the images in black and white feels right. Because the character’s personality is so extreme at times (either one is likely to find her lovable or downright annoying), along with the fluctuations in her mood, the lack of bright colors helps to neutralize or ground what we are experiencing. At one point I wondered if the images were meant to be a series of memories, the character looking back on a not-so-distant past. It might explain why characters we come to meet consistently have a quirk about them—filtered through the lens in which Frances processes those around her.

If this is meant to be a definitive experience of a twenty-something, I am a stranger to it. Maybe it is due to the fact that I do not live in a big city like NYC or LA. I never struggled to pay rent or had to borrow money from my parents. Perhaps it is due to the people I’m drawn toward naturally or a select few of whom I’ve chosen to keep in my life. Or maybe it is because I don’t know how it’s like to pursue a career related in the arts.

Whatever it is, in theory, I should not be able to relate to any of these characters—or at least not that much. But I do—with Frances anyway. I liked that she is a decent person who does not necessarily always do what is right—for herself and those she loves. Sometimes she’s selfish. She’s immature. But she’s learning.

Mistress America


Mistress America (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Mistress America,” written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, is consistently amusing because it manages to capture the ironies, confusion, and insecurities of a young woman feeling like she is floundering in life—and is helpless to do anything about it. Yet at times the picture is a great frustration, too. About halfway through, it shifts location from New York City to an affluent area in Connecticut and one wonders if it is the writers’ intent to satirize its characters rather than continuing to get us to relate to their challenges.

Gerwig plays Brooke, a woman in her thirties with many—perhaps too many—ideas and dreams. Although she starts to find ways to achieve them, it is almost a self-destructive habit that she consistently fails to follow through. This gives her a great unhappiness that she attempts to hide by acting hip, relevant, and fun. Brooke’s father is to marry Tracy’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) during the coming Thanksgiving. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is reminded by her mother to call Brooke so they can get to know each other more. After all, they are only a bus or a subway ride away from one another.

The film reaches the peak of its power as the two young women meet, attend clubs, party, and have sleepovers. Pay particular attention to the manner in which their conversations unfold—because these are often one-sided. They may share a table over dinner or drinks but there is a lack of genuine connection between them because Brooke is, essentially, a selfish individual; the conversations must always be about her problems and concerns about achieving some kind of success that she fails to realize that the person in front of her idolizes her so deeply.

Tracy and Brooke’s hangouts are appropriately shot with an almost dreamy, yellowish glow. And yet the various locations they visit look and feel genuine. For instance, when Times Square is shown, it is not some idealized version found in glossy magazines or more mainstream pictures. It shows a disorganized place, almost disorienting in the number people walking around and amount of traffic in the streets. Getting details like this correctly is most necessary because it pushes the point that both subjects hold such a high regard about the city that they have become blind to the fact that maybe NYC is not as wonderful as they imaged it to be prior to joining the hustle, bustle, and competition.

In scenes depicting the two spending time together, notice that the camera rarely lingers on a shot or a scene. There is an energetic youth about it that feels detached, unconcerned about portraying any trace of substance. One-liners are often funny so we snicker a bit—and yet the more we think about these lines carefully, we realize there is a lack of logic or substance to them. These passing words mean nothing—and Brooke is used to saying such nothings because she is not at all a good listener. We wonder if she is merely pulling out these lines from books she barely read and never finished.

Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Mistress America” loses some power as the story moves from NYC to Connecticut—not just because there is a lack of control when it comes to the type of comedy it wishes to show. The comedy feels forced; there is a great schism between a more natural approach, despite some level of quirkiness, during the first half and the unnatural confrontations in the form of whining and yelling during the latter half. Due to this confusion, one wonders what kind of message the writers hoped to get across.

Lola Versus


Lola Versus (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Everything appears to be going well. After weeks of planning their wedding, Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and Lola (Greta Gerwig), who met junior year in college while studying abroad, are set to partake in one of the most important days of their lives. However, a day before their wedding, Luke confesses to Lola that he just doesn’t feel ready. Heartbroken, Lola moves out of their apartment and attempts to reset her life. This proves especially difficult because as she spent a decade nourishing a relationship that she thought would last forever, the world she thought she still knew is now completely different.

Based on the screenplay by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones, “Lola Versus” is yet another story about a newly single woman trying to recover from a bad break-up, but it has just enough off-kilter sense of humor and honesty to be considered somewhat believable.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed that Lola, as quirky as she is, is slightly annoying because her negative qualities make her less cute and more interesting. If the protagonist had been written as a typical sweet girl who did everything the “right” way, it would have made Lola a victim. We would have felt sorry for her most of the time instead of wanting to reach into the screen and shake some sense into her.

I also enjoyed the idea that people in their pre-30s can very well act like teenagers. Sure, adults are more mature in plenty of ways, but a handful of pre-30s that I know are not immune from acting out like children once in a while. This idea is reflected by the bipolar dialogue. For instance, conversations between Lola and Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), the riotously funny best friend, start out slowly and calmly then suddenly we find ourselves barraged by sitcom-like words of wisdom that feel completely out of place yet nonetheless hilarious.

However, about halfway through, I started to wonder if the material had more ambition in its bones. While it remains close to the theme of Lola constantly wanting men by her side (Kinnaman, Hamish Linklater, Ebon Moss-Bachrach), defining her existence around them, her interactions with them fail to reach a sense of variation not in terms of personalities on screen but mood. We rarely get the feeling that she is torn among these men without the camera having to rely on putting Lola front and center while looking sad.

Furthermore, since Lola’s scenes with them are not given appropriate time to unfold or relay the messages that need to expressed, a lot of the scenes feel unnecessary. The sitcom-like comedy sprinkled in between eventually works against the film because situations begin to feel exactly that of a sitcom—boring, superficial, and expected.

Directed by Daryl Wein, “Lola Versus” is playfully intelligent at its best, its one-liners sure to draw a smile on the viewers’ faces, but unbearably eager to be dramatic at its worst. Certainly there are better ways to communicate shame and resentment without showing our protagonist naked and crying just after unexceptional sex.

To Rome with Love


To Rome with Love (2012)
★ / ★★★★

At one point in “To Rome with Love,” written and directed by Woody Allen, a character says, “Whoever imbecile conceived this moronic experience should be taken out and beheaded.” And although my sentiment for this picture does not reflect that line exactly, it comes really, really close. I hated this movie.

I was at a loss on what Allen wishes to communicate or convey to the audiences. I cannot imagine anyone that can relate to this film on a pragmatic or emotional level because all four story strands are given an element of absurdism so off-putting that it is difficult to discern whether the writer-director is making fun of his subjects or he is simply wishing to make a movie that feels light and inconsequential. Either way, it is a lose-lose situation especially when expectations are high. Allen is a seasoned writer-director. What is produced here is egregiously bad—slow in pacing, a bore to sit through, one of the most worthless experiences I have had in quite some time.

Out of the four strands, perhaps one that is most marginally interesting is a young architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls in head over heels with his girlfriend’s best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), an actress, who is visiting Rome after having broken up with her boyfriend who turned out to be gay. Although Jack’s girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), fears that her beau will grow attracted to Monica eventually, she keeps looking for ways for the two to spend time with one another. The situation could have been rife with potentially funny truths and consequences, but the screenplay loses the big picture consistently, opting to focus on behavior—such as aside comments with a sort-of imaginary character (Alec Baldwin) that can be seen and unseen by the trio whenever convenient—rather than the real emotions that are encountered when such a situation arises.

The casting of Eisenberg and Page does not work because these performers are driven by innate quirkiness. The attention is further focused on behavior—which is a problem in the first place. Because the two are so idiosyncratic, the tone is almost always off. They need a co-star who can function as a sounding board for their peculiarities. As a result, we are never really convinced about what Jack sees in Monica and vice-versa. Although I thought Gerwig does an adequate job in playing the role of an insecure girlfriend, she is not the ideal co-star. She, too, can be too quirky but the saving grace, I suppose, is that she does not have very many lines.

Two stories I found ridiculously boring involve Allen playing the father who meets the Roman family of his daughter’s boyfriend and an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly finds himself being stalked by the paparazzi. The former does not work because we never really believe that Allen’s character, Jerry, is once an opera director who rarely received good reviews for his work. I was at a loss on what Allen was thinking when he decided to cast himself in this role. It does not fit him in any way, shape, or form. All we see on screen is the director of the film wanting some sort of attention.

The latter does not work because the screenplay never allows us—in a meaningful way— into the life of a man suddenly finding himself considered as a celebrity. While the message of celebrity being an evanescent thing is crystal clear, that is a truth that is obvious. Wouldn’t it have been so much better or interesting if we learned how special this ordinary man really is despite the chaos unfolding around him? We rarely saw his family. I was not convinced that Allen had a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be a part of the working class. His work here reeks of privilege. I found it repelling.

I would like to think that Allen is smarter than this. I want to convince myself that he made this movie as a joke—that people will be brave enough call garbage as garbage rather than art regardless of the name behind it. I sensed no effort put into this work. It is not funny. It is not sad. it is not tragi-comic. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. I felt as though I wasted my time and I advise you not to waste yours.

Damsels in Distress


Damsels in Distress (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transferring sophomore in Seven Oaks University, was approached by a trio of girls because they believed that Lily needed a sort of saving from herself. Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) were strong proponents of social work. In their eyes, “social work” meant finding people who were inferior to them and rescuing these so-called pathetic individuals. So strong were their convictions to help others, they ran a suicide prevention center on campus in which their most effective form of therapy involved tap dancing. Written and directed by Whit Stillman, “Damsels in Distress” was savagely funny, propelled by an unflinching dialogue that felt absurd yet satirical. The more we observed these characters, the funnier they became without even trying. My favorite specimen to take under a microscope was Violet, the leader of the quadruplet appropriately named as flowers–their appearances fiercely alluring and their actions, on the surface, seemed like the gentle helping hand of Mother Theresa. When Violet was calm, the sentences she uttered did not contain contractions. She spoke, essentially, like a robot which made listening to her somewhat of a trial because I didn’t know whether to laugh at her or succumb to her authority. When criticized, especially by Lily, instead of acting like an oak, breaking from her own insecurities, she bended like a reed, took the criticism for what it was and attempted to better herself in case she needed to give a similar seed of wisdom to someone else in the future. I enjoyed that Violet was a complex character, not just some mean girl who wore nice clothes but was truly ugly on the inside. Like the other girls, while she had the tendency to look down on others, the more we spent time with her, it became clearer that their group, as eccentric as they sounded at times, genuinely believed what they stood for. In its own twisted way, I found that to be the heart of the picture. Issues that surrounded them, like boy problems (Hugo Becker, Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf), were often uncertain. What it came down to was the fact that these women were still willing hang out with each other, sometimes having not much of a choice since they were roommates, at the end of a bad day. Like Lily’s relationship with the other three, our relationship with all of them was, at best, sprinkled with reluctance. We all have friends who we consider “sort of” a friend. We hang out with them, we listen to their stories, and sometimes we even find ourselves unguarded in sharing personal information with them. And yet in the back of mind we just can’t help but not trust them completely because there’s something that feels off about them. As unbelievable as some of the events that transpired in the film, Stillman captured the essence of the fragility human relationships. I admired his boldness in experimenting with and subverting our expectations of campus comedy and foibles of friendship. However, it didn’t feel as though the picture had an ending that we nor the characters particularly deserved. Breaking into a musical number, while fun and energetic, felt like the writer-director shirking responsibility in giving us something worthwhile. But since everything prior to that point was handled with such vision and confidence, perhaps the filmmaker was making a statement. If indeed he was, too bad it went right over my head.

Nights and Weekends


Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.