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Greta Gerwig makes her solo directorial debut with Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical look at her life growing up in Sacramento—and she immediately establishes herself as a directing force to be reckoned with.

Saoirise Ronan, who should’ve won an Oscar for Brooklyn, will likely get another chance for her turn as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an artistic Sacramento youth who yearns for the East Coast and some distance from her domineering mom (Laurie Metcalf). This is a coming-of-age story like no other thanks to the insightful writing and brisk directorial style of Gerwig, who makes Lady Bird’s story consistently surprising.

Ronan’s Lady Bird is a rebel with a good heart—a theater geek who stinks at math—but she’s on an emotional rollercoaster. She also gets a lot of laughs, especially in her showdowns with Metcalf, who has never been better.

Lucas Hedges, on a roll after Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is funny and sad as one of Lady Bird’s young love interests, while Odeya Rush is golden as Lady Bird’s best friend, Jenna. Tracy Letts is perfect as the nice dad dealing with warring factions in the household, while Timothée Chalamet (currently racking up awards for Call Me by Your Name) is perhaps the biggest laugh-getter as another love interest, the aloof Kyle.

Lady Bird is a triumph for Ronan and Gerwig, and while it would never happen, I’d love to see a sequel about Lady Bird’s college years.

Lady Bird is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

Brooklyn in the 1950s is sumptuously captured in John Crowley’s wonderful story of an Irish immigrant trying to choose between two lands.

Saoirse Ronan is a pure delight as Eilis, who gets a job in New York and quickly falls in love with blue-collar worker Tony (Emory Cohen), a charming Yankees fan with eyes set on marriage. When family tragedy calls Eilis back to Ireland for a spell, she’s forced to decide between Tony and Jim (the ever-so-busy Domhnall Gleeson), a hometown boy who is also trying to win her over.

The film does a splendid job of depicting an immigrant’s life, from the woozy boat trip to the derogatory remarks in diners. Ronan finally gets the role she deserves, and will certainly be a front-runner for an Oscar.

Crowley has not only put together one of 2015’s best-acted films; he’s also turned in one of the best-looking ones, and the score is a true winner.

This is a great movie for anybody looking to experience a little bit of New York history in a truly romantic way.

Brooklyn is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another unique, beautiful and quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him. The man has never made a bad movie—and this one stands as one of his best.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup).

Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, largely thanks to Fiennes, who nails every piece of dialogue. His is the best performance by any actor so far in 2014.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a-can’t miss film.

This is a remarkable, tremendously enjoyable achievement, and will stand as one of the year’s best films.

Special Features: Anderson films often get a rushed home-video release, which is later followed by a more-extensive package from the Criterion Collection. That seems to be the case here: This one features a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and little else.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another wholly unique, beautiful, quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in super-heavy makeup). Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a can’t-miss film.

There’s something so joyous and fun about the way Anderson makes movies. This is a remarkable, tremendous enjoyable achievement.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615); the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Director Neil Jordan makes Byzantium a vampire film that is actually worth watching. Now available via IFC On Demand, this is the first decent vampire film since the undead started sparkling and moping in the Twilight films.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Eleanor, a vampire permanently stuck at the age of 16 for more than 200 years. She roams the Earth with her prostitute vampire mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton). Eleanor likes to write her stories down and then throw them away, as a means of keeping her secrets. She meets an interesting and ill boy (Caleb Landry Jones) and starts thinking that her vampire life is kind of boring.

It’s nice to see a vampire story with a majestic scope that goes beyond mere camp. Jordan literally uses waterfalls of blood in his movie, and brings his true sense of style to the proceedings. Ronan and Arterton keep things interesting, even when the script gets a little dull.

Sam Riley (so good in Control) shows up as a former soldier with a secret, and gives the vampire back-story additional depth. That depth is what makes this the best vampire movie in a long while. It’s not a great film—dull stretches abound—but it does give the genre an injection of something different.

Ronan was having a bad year after the horror that was The Host. Perhaps this will get her back on track. It’s good to see her talents devoted to something worthwhile after her appearance in one of the year’s worst films.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Hey, kids who are aspiring filmmakers: Gather around, because Uncle Bob has got something to tell you. OK? Now, listen up.

I want you to go and see The Host as soon as possible, because it is an important step in your moviemaking education: The Host is the quintessential example of how to make a movie so shitty that Satan would actually turn his nose up at it and proclaim it too profane for his torture cineplex in hell.

This movie is based on a novel penned by Stephenie Meyer, writer of the Twilight things and, at this point, one of my sworn enemies. Nothing good has been produced from this writer’s works, and I want her to take up full-time bowling or stenciling to distract her from her computer. Seriously, Stephenie … you have a lot of money now. Please … have mercy on those of us who can’t handle your pap. Stop hurting us with your crazy words and ideas.

The Host leaves the land of sparkly vampires and journeys to a future Earth where aliens have invaded. These aliens are CGI, super-white, flowing clusters of psychedelic sperm. They look like the end result of a Daft Punk robot ejaculation. (Daft Spunk?) These aliens have traveled through the universe, “bonding” with species by entering through cuts in their necks and turning their eyes a very light blue.

In the opening moments, we see Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a human resister being cornered by alien-infected humans, chief among them being The Seeker (Diane Kruger). They give chase, and Melanie plunges through a window to certain death.

Sadly, for Ronan, Melanie lives on: Her life is saved after a Tiger Woods-looking dude puts an alien in her neck. She becomes Wanderer (later, Wanda) and seems in line with the alien plan for global domination. But, wait … Melanie is still inside her head, and Melanie has got some whining to do about the body-being-dominated-by-an-alien thing.

Watching Ronan having arguments with her inner voice is trash cinema at its acrid apex. It reminded me of All of Me, that movie in which Steve Martin’s body got possessed by Lily Tomlin. While Martin did a fine job arguing with the voice within, Ronan sounds like a really whacky teenager with voices in her head.

Wanda winds up with Melanie’s still-human uncle (William Hurt … oh, it’s so sad to see you here) somewhere in the desert. Her uncle and his followers eventually accept Wanda (or the possessed Melanie) as a friend and family member. She entertains the advances of two boys (Max Irons and Jake Abel). One is Melanie’s old flame; the other is a dude who just thinks alien possessed girls are super-hot.

Andrew Niccol, who made the decent Gattaca but also made the awful In Time, directs. In Time was visually unimaginative and sterile, as is this film. Shiny cars and white suits are the accouterments of choice for the aliens, and nothing could be more boring.

Poor Saoirse Ronan. Here’s a young actress with the talent to command great roles, and she finds herself in this swill. Sure, her peeps probably thought getting her a gig in the latest film based on a Stephenie Meyer novel would be a sure thing. It’s actually one of the biggest creative bombs of this decade, and will do nothing to move her forward. Ronan has chops, and she doesn’t deserve this. (On an optimistic note, Ronan is in Wes Anderson’s next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps this will help get her back on track. Anderson is reliable, and surely he will find something to do with Ronan’s talents besides allowing her to argue with herself for two hours.)

I value my minutes here on this Earth. I consider each minute a precious little diamond nugget that I will never get back. Therefore, I don’t normally wish for these minutes to pass me by quickly. I like to savor them. But When I was watching The Host, I found myself wishing I was some sort of amazing Time Lord who could grab the minutes in The Host’s remaining running time and squash them to death, resulting in their passing without me actually experiencing them.

Alas, I just sat there, watching The Host, jaw agape and eyes glazed over, aware that some moments on this Earth aren’t precious. They aren’t precious in any way at all. 

The Host is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews