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Posts Tagged ‘Tracy Letts’

Saoirse Ronan

“LADY BIRD” My rating: B+ 

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Saoirse Ronan gives an Oscar-worthy performance in “Lady Bird” is expected. She is, after all, perhaps the greatest actress of her young generation. (Exhibit One: “Brooklyn.”)

What’s really surprising about this funny/furious coming-of-age yarn is the voice behind the camera.  “Lady Bird” is the first feature soley written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the actress known as indie filmdom’s go-to gal for slightly ditzy heroines (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”).

Gerwig gives us not only a first-rate dramedy about a young woman’s growth from cranky teen to independent woman, but also the most incendiary mother/daughter movie relationship since “Terms of Endearment.”

Combining savage wordplay, satiric insights into adolescent life and a genuine sense of family dynamics, “Lady Bird” is simultaneously familiar and fiercely original.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior (the year is 2002) and  pissed off about nearly everything. Her general dissatisfaction may be behind her decision to change her name to Lady Bird…or to at least demand that her parents, friends and teachers call her  that. A new name may lead to a new life, right?

In the film’s first scene Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are reduced to tears while driving down the highway listening to a book tape of The Grapes of Wrath.  It’s a rare moment when mom and daughter are on the same page; seconds later Lady Bird’s temper flares and she impulsively bails from the moving car. (She will spend much of the movie with a cast on one hand.)

The source of the argument is college.  The two are returning from a scouting trip to regional universities, but Lady Bird has her heart set on something back east, a place with “real culture, like New York…or Connecticut.” Marion, a glum financial harpie, warns that there isn’t any money for an Ivy League education.  A small state college the next town over will have to do.

This is the film’s central conflict: a smart, ambitious and somewhat spoiled adolescent versus her penny-pinching, essentially joyless parent.  (Lady Bird’s dad, played by Tracy Letts, is a laid-back  noncombatant who offers moral support to both mother and daughter but not much else, having been downsized from his tech job.)

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Tracy Letts, Debra Winger

“THE LOVERS” My rating: B 

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Spectacularly acted and deliciously dark, “The Lovers” is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and drama.

Azazel Jacobs’ cinematic faceslap centers on the fiftysomething Michael and Mary (Tracy Letts, Debra Winger), a suburban  couple who  have been married for so long that they’ve given up searching for that old spark.

They’re more like roommates than spouses. Most of their conversations center on the mundane; they can coast a long way on “We’re out of toothpaste.”

But each is having a secret extramarital affair.

Michael is doodling with Lucy (Melora Walters), a  ballet instructor at least a decade his junior whose neediness is off the charts.

Mary is getting it on with Robert (Aidan Gillen, Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones”), a writer who’s given to lurking outside her place of work.

Both Lucy and Robert are absurdly vulnerable and emotionally naked.  They’re more like a couple of lovesick teens than adults, and Michael and Mary are exhausting themselves trying to please their lovers without giving away  the game at home.

It may be time to fish or cut bait.  Lucy and Robert are tired of the lies and excuses and each lays down the law:  End the marriage.  Now

Independently, Michael and Mary both promise that they’ll bring down the curtain  during an upcoming reunion with their college-age son.

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Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

“CHRISTINE” My rating: B

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An almost unbearably sad story well told, “Christine” hovers on the nexus of individual mental illness and societal insanity.

But however painful this yarn may be, it offers an acting showcase for Rebecca Hall, the Brit actress who here dowdies herself down to portray real-life TV reporter  Christine Chubbuck with a quiet anguish and growing desperation that can make your skin crawl.

Set in the early ’70s in a TV station in Sarasota, FLA, Antonio Campos’ film (the screenplay is by Craig Shilowich) follows
Christine’s personal and professional meltdown as she is beset both by inner  demons and what she sees as an unconscionable deterioration in local TV news.

She’s a workaholic…perhaps not by choice. Christine has  no personal life to speak of.  She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and hasn’t had a proper date in years — though she has a clumsy case of the unrequited hots for the station’s preening anchorman (Michael C. Hall).

When she has a spare moment she puts on hand puppet shows for elementary school kids — shows that are a lot heavier on moral instruction than entertainment value.

And that’s Christine’s dilemma at work as well.

She is forever battling her news director (Tracy Letts), whose mandate is to beef up the station’s pitiful ratings. That means minimizing the thoughtful reports in which Christine specializes and leaning heavily on “juicy” topics: crime, violence and the outrageous.

“If it bleeds,  it leads,” he advises the staff.

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Logan Lehman, Sarah Gaddon

Logan Lerman, Sarah Gaddon

“INDIGNATION”  My rating: B

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As a producer and/or writer of most of Ang Lee’s films, James Schamus has established a reputation for intelligent —  even intellectual — filmmaking.

Now the CEO of Focus Features has made his directing debut, and as you’d expect from the man who wrote an entire book about one of the most confounding and polarizing films ever — Carl Theodore Dreyer’s emotionally arid “Gertrude” — it is brainy, challenging and not a little perplexing.

“Indignation” is based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, and a more faithful adaptation can hardly be imagined. Even to the point of duplicating things in the novel that have little hope of working on film.

Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Fury”) is Marcus, a New York Jew who has landed a scholarship to Winesburg College in Ohio.

The year is 1951 and as long as he remains a student in good standing, Marcus can avoid the draft that is gobbling up his childhood friends for Korean cannon fodder. Staying in school is, for all intents, a life insurance policy.

But he finds Winesburg’s middle-American ethos and white Protestant outlook disconcerting. For starters, Marcus is assigned a dorm room with the only other two Jews  on campus who aren’t members of the Jewish fraternity.  These three individualists — one is probably gay, the other antisocial — form their own little ghetto.

And then there’s the weekly chapel requirement, which demands that all students show up to hear the campus chaplain drone on about Jesus.

Here’s the thing about Marcus.  Though he knows relatively little of the real world — he’s a virgin, he’s never worked outside his father’s butcher shop — he’s a borderline genius. And with that comes a degree of arrogance and, well, indignation at the way he’s being treated.

Things look up when he meets blonde coed Olivia (Sarah Gadon), whom he takes to a fancy dinner (Escargot! This son of a kosher butcher has never dreamed of such excess) and who rewards him afterward with a matter-of-fact blow job.

Marcus is so stunned, his moral compass so bent by this experience that he immediately ends the relationship.  Although he can’t resist standing outside her dorm late at night trying to find Olivia’s window.

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Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts

Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts

“AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY”  My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Jan. 10)

121 minutes | MPAA rating R

Some stories were meant to be performed on a stage.

For instance, the plays of Sam Shepard, which deliver moments of violence and affrontery you almost never see in live theater. A Shepard character might be required to beat a typewriter to death with a golf club, smash dozens of glass bottles just feet from the folks in the front row, or urinate on his little sister’s science project in full view of the paying customers.

If those things happened in a movie, you’d shrug. No big deal.  In a movie you can do anything.

But seeing those moments play out live, in the flesh, while you brace yourself to dodge flying glass shards or broken typewriter keys…well, that has a way of focusing your mind most wonderfully.

I thought of Shepard’s plays while watching John Wells’ screen version of “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning black comedy about an Oklahoma clan assembled to bury its patriarch (played, ironically enough, by  Sam Shepard).  In the same way that Shepard’s  plays almost never make satisfying movies, “August: Osage County” makes an uncomfortable transition to the screen.

First, don’t buy into the TV ads that make it look like a rollicking comedy.  There are laughs here, yeah, but they’re the sort of laughs you can choke on. Dourness is the order of the day.

In adapting his play Letts has boiled a 3 1/2 hour production down to 2 hours. Stuff’s been left out — character development, carefully calibrated pauses — and while the essence of the play remains, it feels curiously underwhelming.

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