Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig's semi-autobiographical debut feature film, offers an astute, clever, often funny, and poignant portrait of the teenage transition to adulthood. It's 2002 as Gerwig zeroes in on Christine who has given herself the name Lady Bird, thereby taking control of her identity even while she struggles exploring and defining it.

Originally titled "Mothers and Daughters," the heart of the film is continuous conflict between Lady Bird and her mother Marion, who reveals her own challenging upbringing when she describes her mother as "an abusive alcoholic." A senior at Immaculate Conception High School, Lady Bird longs to move far away from Marion and home town Sacramento, what she contemptuously calls "the Midwest of California." At Telluride where I first saw Lady Bird, Gerwig described this film as "a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left." 

Dropping into Lady Bird's life over the course of a year, Gerwig identified one theme as time rushing forward, "one scene tumbling into the next," which they do in a revealing shorthand. Brief moments communicate volumes about values--betrayals of friends, discovery of sex, secret support from her father amidst continuous conflict with her mother from whom she must disengage to realize herself, even while acknowledging several times that her mother has a good heart. So does Lady Bird, as she will find, especially when she shows empathy for a boyfriend. Gerwig observes that the mother/daughter conflict is so contentious, which it surely is, because they're so close.  

Supporting characters are established as three dimensional (as opposed to stereotypes) in very brief dialogue exchanges: Lady Bird's father Larry and Sister Sarah Joan, for example. All of the performances, especially Saoirse Ronan's as Lady Bird, Laurie Metcalf's as Marion, Tracy Letts' as Larry, and Lucas Hedges' as boyfriend Danny are Oscar caliber. So too the technical presentation with the camera capturing but never intruding into scenes. Similarly, the sound track artfully adds commentary without ever feeling intrusive. The title itself comes from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme Ladybird, Ladybird about running home to save a child. 

Gerwig wanted to portray universal truth in a small story. She's achieved that and more--a thoroughly entertaining film in a smashing feature film debut -- one with heart and soul. 

 

Most people know about Jane Goodall's ground-breaking animal behavior research on the wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, now in Tanzania. We know much less about Jane herself: that Dr. Louis Leakey picked twenty-six-year old British secretary Jane Goodall precisely because she had no degree and no training, thereby embarking on a six-month study unbiased about scientific theory.  

Leakey picked Goodall because she impressed him with her lifelong love of animals, her open mind, her passion for knowledge, and her monumental patience. As writer/director Brett Morgen describes the circumstances, Goodall would need that patience, as any animal behaviorist knows, with long hours and months of observation passing before the chimpanzee community accepted Jane. Through occasional voice-over narration along with contemporary on-camera interviews, Jane says and proves that when she stared into the eyes of the chimpanzees, she saw a reasoning, thinking person looking back. She will also eventually find brutal aggression.

Simply, elegantly titled Jane, this documentary explores Jane and her world: her mother initially accompanying Jane to Gombe because it was considered unsafe, Jane's loving the isolation and resenting the need for National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick sent to photograph and film her and the chimps to keep the grants coming, Hugo and Jane's eventual marriage, Jane leaving Gombe to be with him and their son Flint, her eventual return to Gombe, and the Foundation now in her name. 

Hugo's wildlife footage is breathtaking, both of the chimpanzees and of the Serengeti. But it is his films of Jane and the chimpanzees, named and closely observed, that carries this film. Goodall's direct, unsentimental recounting of her extraordinary experiences is heartwarming and heartbreaking when a polio epidemic invades the community over fifty years ago. As Goodall says, "Experience in the forest had given me perspective. In the forest death is not hidden, but all around you all the time, part of the endless cycle of life." Goodall's life, by any standards, is extraordinary and we're fortunate that she has shared it so generously in the documentary Jane. It made me happy to be alive. At the Hi-Pointe Cinema.

 

True to his unique, uncommon muse, director Todd Haynes presents his latest film Wonderstruck as an intriguing challenge to dialogue-dependent narratives. This homage to silent films illustrates through its design what silence means for deaf people, as Haynes explained at Telluride where I first saw his film. Two stories run on parallel tracks, each ingeniously commenting on the other. 

The chronologically earlier 1927 tale, second in appearance, belongs to deaf, twelve-year-old Rose, living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Though she doesn't speak, she communicates magnificently with music interpreting her moods and situations. The second story, set 50 years later in 1977, focuses on twelve-year-old Ben, in Minnesota, struck deaf by lightning. Rose and Ben, seeking ways to cope with their alienation, flee to New York seeking lost parents. Both feel inexplicably drawn to the Museum of Natural History where they are captivated by dioramas, in particular one with wolves that came to life in Ben's introductory, terrifying nightmare. Cross-cutting between stories, they eventually converge.  

Based on Brian Selznick's novel and adapted by him, the minimal dialogue directs attention to the slightest nonverbal gesture, including the smallest facial movement. We can't rely, as we so often do, on dialogue to carry the film. Haynes demands a challenging shift in focus and rewards those who can open themselves to his silent-film aesthetic, more exaggerated for Rose's 1927 melodramatic acting style, more subdued for Ben whose anxiety is more internalized. 

The visual look achieved by award-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman is equally important in making Wonderstruck work. Rose's story, shot in gorgeous black and white, accentuates the silent film ambience. Ben's sections have their own distinct style, several scenes unfolding on Manhattan's 1977 streets and evoking that time period.  

In terms of the acting, as Haynes was pleased to note at Telluride with Simmonds in attendance, casting deaf, 12-year-old Millicent Simmonds as Rose brought truth and insight to the role. As Ben, Oakes Fegley, recently in Pete's Dragon, emotionally interprets his crisis. Julianne Moore unites the individuals and events in a remarkable scene. Wonderstruck is an atypical cinematic experience, a refreshingly engaging one. At a Landmark Theatre. 

 

Seeing the magnificent cast list may draw you in. Enjoying a classic mystery, even when you know who dun it, may draw you in. But after watching Murder on the Orient Express, you may feel discounted, for the Kenneth Branagh production has all the oomph of an airless whoopee cushion.

The cast is, indeed, remarkable. The movie, updated from the 1974 version, is based on an Agatha Christie novel. The 13 people in the line-up include Dame Judi Dench as the countess and Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary. Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Dr. Arbuthnot and Penélope Cruz is Pilar, Derek Jacobi is the valet, Josh Gad is the secretary MacQueen, and Johnny Depp is his boss, Mr. Ratchett. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the cougar, Caroline Hubbard. Willem Dafoe as somebody or other. Branagh rises from the director's chair to play Hercule Poirot, his signature mustache a facial wonder.

What is not a wonder is Branagh's acting, flaccid at best. He is not bested by the supporting cast, each of whom phones in her or his performance on nothing more modern than a flip phone. 

Worth watching, since the perps are well known to most, is the photography directed by Haris Zambarioukos. Overhead shots inside the train, Dafoe shot through beveled glass, views of snowy mountains from above and beside, actors framed by rounded arches, including the tunnel that gathers all together for Poirot to conclude -- these are all worth looking at.

Unless you're a major fan of Christie, you won't know if Michael Green's script expands on or quotes her words, but the plot itself with its veritable riot of clues is a bit of a mystery. Murder on the Orient Express drags, which is good if you need a nap, but not so good if you seek excitement and mystery.

 

What made Bad Moms delightful was the attention to truth: those moms weren't bad so much as they were exhausted. The moms in the sequel are shown to be exhausted, too, but by trying to make Christmas perfect -- the perfect tree, perfect gifts, perfect parties. They are their mothers' daughters.

The film could be called "Meet the Mothers," for here are the women who formed the characters who became the so-called "bad moms." Kiki's mother smothers her, right down to PJs with her daughter's head printed helter-skelter on the flannel. Amy's mother is a perfectionist with a mannequin's stud up her backside. Carla suffers an absentee mother, one who shows up asking for money and then gambles it.

It's more than the young mothers can bear. So they turn to drink and therapy and cursing. Their F-bombs are never followed by la-la-la-la-la-la-la. They struggle with their mothers as, it turns out, their mothers wrestled with theirs, too. It's matrilineal.

Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell bring Amy and Kiki to life, funnily enough, but it is Kathryn Hahn who stands out as Carla, now working in a spa as a waxer. When she is presented with the private parts of a male stripper, Hahn waxes eloquently, facially and vocally. As would any red-blooded American heterosexual woman. And, still, no complete male nudity, only reaction shots -- oh, and one especially funny sound effect. The mothers are portrayed to a fare-thee-well by Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, and Christine Baranski as they, too, find a new path for themselves away from the perfect Christmas.

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote and directed Bad Moms and The Hangover, know their audience, and in A Bad Moms Christmas, they balance the nasty with the poignant. Almost. 

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