Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Lady Bird, 11/8/16, BPM (Beats Per Minute), Last Flag Flying, A Bad Moms Christmas

Lady Bird


BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Last Flag Flying

A Bad Moms Christmas

Another relatively strong crop of films as we enter the season of Oscar hopefuls:

Greta Gerwig makes her solo directing debut with "Lady Bird," starring the always impressive Saoirse Ronan in a nomination-worthy performance as Sacramento high school senior Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson ("It is my given name. I gave it to myself"), who in spring 2002 faces college admissions, senioritis, first romance, first sex, friendships made and lost, a supportive father (Tracy Letts) who loses his job and a hyper-critical mother (Laurie Metcalf) who wants her to stay local. Metcalf is garnering early awards buzz, but I never warmed to either the character or the performance - not even in a late scene that reveals the love and fear beneath the passive-aggressiveness. Letts is a genial presence, but his role is underperformed (good) and underwritten (bad). It's Ronan's show - she's in almost every frame of the picture - and this gifted actress delivers the powerhouse performance she may have needed to start landing major American leads. Able support comes from Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet as the respective beaux, Lois Smith as the no-pretenses headmistress of Lady Bird's Catholic school, Beanie Feldstein as best friend Julie, and Stephen Henderson (of "Fences") as the drama coach who, as the parents rise for a standing ovation at the end of "Merrily We Roll Along," murmurs, "They didn't get it." There are enough such moments of truth for "Lady Bird" to come close to three stars, but a few moments of falsity (why would Gerwig focus the camera on a phone number that starts with 1?) Gerwig, a native of the City of Trees, gives Sacramento as much of a Woody-esque glow as is possible, and opens with a great quotation about the capital by Joan Didion. Still, I fear "Lady Bird" may mark Gerwig's directorial high point. This material is so personal for her (though purportedly not autobiographical) that her Achilles heel of overwriting rarely trips her up.

For the group-effort documentary "11/8/16," sixteen directors each followed one American on Election Day last year. Among the subjects are a labor union representative; a Dreamer and activist; a coal miner; the videographer for the Clinton social media campaign; a soldier just starting to recover from PTSD; the political editor of the L.A. Times; a Philadelphia radio news anchor; and a "houseless, not homeless" Hawaiian surfer who doesn't know who's running. The movie makes up for in immediacy what it lacks in resonance and in breadth what it lacks in depth. Besides, I'm a sucker for a happy ending…A strong recommendation for Robin Campillo's "BPM (Beats Per Minute)," a feature film about several members of the Paris chapter of ACT UP in the early 90s. The film brilliantly captures the not-a-minute-to-spare energy of these men (and a couple women) as they teach themselves immunology and virology, plot attention-grabbing petty crimes (such as splattering a pharmaceutical lab with fake blood), and cope with a disease that was still untreatable for most and viewed with much shame by the public. There are also moments of unrestrained joy, on the thumping dance floor and in the bedroom. As Campillo focuses on the romance between new guy Nathan (magnetic Arnaud Valois) and hellraising Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the latter's slow dance with death, the 146-minute runtime begins to get away from him. Still, there are some lovely and tender scenes even in this extended denouement…A mild discommendation for Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying," a minor work from a major filmmaker, with a ratio of moments of truth to moments of falsity approximately the inverse of "Lady Bird's." Steve Carell enlists former Marine buddies Bryan Cranston (an alcoholic bar owner) and Laurence Fishburne (now a man of God) to bring the body of Carell's killed-in-action Marine son up from Arlington to his home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As with most Linklater films, it's all dialogue, but what's on offer here falls at a much lower level than "Before Midnight." There's too much speechifying, too much forced laughter, and little for Carell to do but look down morosely ("Battle of the Sexes" feels a lifetime away). J. Quinton Johnson makes the strongest impression as the company-mate of Carell's son who's charged with seeing his body home safely, while Cicely Tyson has a nice scene as the mother of the Marine who died on the three leads' watch in Vietnam. But it's not enough to lift the grey clouds of a willfully dreary and forgettable film.

Enough of that. Something fun. Fun and funny. Genuinely, surprisingly funny. It's "A Bad Moms Christmas," which among the universe of potential films entitled "A Bad Moms Christmas" is a really good one. I gave the first "Bad Moms" a generous rec on the strength of Kathryn Hahn, but Jon Lucas' follow-up (this time co-writing/directing with Scott Moore) is far superior: generously written and performed, with several first-rate comic performances and almost every significant character registering one or more big laugh lines. The genius twist this time is to bring in gifted comediennes to play Kristen Bell's disturbingly clingy mom (Cheryl Hines), Hahn's emotionally disconnected, gambling-addict mom (Susan Sarandon), and Mila Kunis' hyper-critical, seemingly unloving mom (Christine Baranski in a nomination-worthy performance that had me applauding during the end credits). Then there are the guys: Kunis' hunky BF (Jay Hernandez, who gets the single most hilarious line); Bell's besieged hubby (David Walton), who can't believe her mother has watched them have sex (who could?), and Baranski's put-upon but endlessly accommodating husband (Peter Gallagher), plus Hahn's sweet but almost catatonically stupid son (Cade Mansfield Cooksey) and the obscenely endowed, sex-on-a-stick stripper (Justin Hartley) who comes to her spa to have his balls waxed. None of this takes place on Planet Earth, and all of it is sprinkled with too much needless profanity and too many montages, but amid the high production values and the noise the laughs come quietly, almost snuck under the breath. And I sat up in bed reliving many of them: great lines, perfectly underplayed reactions, and above all Baranski's tour de force. For the right women - and they're out there - "A Bad Moms Christmas" may just become a yuletide perennial.

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