Review of reviews: Film & Music
Directed by Greta Gerwig (R)
A stubborn teen stumbles toward adulthood.
Hollywood is finally starting to understand women under 20, said David Sims in TheAtlantic.com. “Funny, lively,” yet “devastating when it needs to be,” Greta Gerwig’s new comedydrama about a headstrong senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento “undoubtedly” ranks among the best movies of the year. Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine McPherson—a self-dramatizing teen who christens herself Lady Bird—and the actress makes Christine’s willfulness “as endearing as her vulnerability.” You may think you’ve seen another young rebel or two fall in love, worry about college and sex, and spar with her mother—and “you probably have, but never quite like this,” said A.O. Scott in The New York Times. “I wish I could convey just how thrilling this movie is,” but it’d take 90 minutes to list all the ways it makes a familiar story fresh and surprising. In a cast loaded with great performers, Laurie Metcalf deserves special praise, said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. As Christine’s loving but disapproving mother, she’s “heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.” You have a grin plastered on your face for virtually the entire movie, and once it’s over, “you want to give thanks for how wonderful it is, how wise and funny and full of grace.”
Last Flag Flying
Directed by Richard Linklater (R)
Three Vietnam vets bury a younger man.
The best Richard Linklater movies “could only have been made by Linklater,” said Peter Rainer in CSMonitor.com. The director’s latest is, by comparison, “rigorously conventional”: a story about a Vietnam War veteran who calls on two excomrades to stand by him after his son is killed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though Last Flag Flying has its moments after the trio’s mission takes an unexpected turn, it proves “all too righteously bland.” But “the movie’s strength lies in its gentleness,” said Dana Stevens in Slate.com. Instead of making a solemn drama about governmental lies, Linklater has enlisted co-stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne in staging a rambling ensemble comedy featuring “a pack of exceptional performances but no discernible star.” Unfortunately, as the characters retrieve the body they’ve come to bury and embark on an unlikely road trip, “you never feel, in your bones, that you’re watching battle-scarred veterans,” said Owen Gleiberman in Variety. Given the screenwriters’ banal editorializing, “you feel like you’re seeing terrific actors doing all they can to bring life and soul to a not-so-well-made play.”
Meaning of Life
Kelly Clarkson finally got the chance to be herself—and she apparently wants to be a modern- day Aretha Franklin, said Mikael Wood in the Los Angeles Times. The 35-year-old hitmaker’s first album for Atlantic Records leans heavily on “weighty grooves, tart horns, churchy organ—and of course, Clarkson’s fire hose of a voice.” On the tracks here that click, the sound is “appealingly unpolished.” Too often, though, Clarkson’s music remains “far too busy”: The instrumentation has changed but not the way her producers’ interventions distract from her vocal performance. The former American Idol winner hasn’t done much new with her lyrics, said Spencer Kornhaber in TheAtlantic.com. “Over and over, she kisses off some powerimbalanced relationship and searches for a more satisfying connection.” But though a few songs, including the Tina Turner-esque “Whole Lotta Woman,” come close to “feeling like costume play,” a Texas native choosing to sing church-inflected R&B mostly feels right, and “her diehards should be charmed.”
The Thrill of It All
Sam Smith’s new breakup album “doesn’t just wallow in love’s misery, it practically drowns in the stuff,” said Neil McCormick in The Telegraph (U.K.). But though the Grammywinning young British soul singer offers nothing inventive musically and sounds heartsick throughout, “it all hits home because Smith makes every note sound like a matter of life and death.” Even while he’s working in a tired gospel vein, there’s “something supernatural” about the 25-year-old’s vast vocal and dynamic range. He can be called overdramatic, yet he’s “always reaching for the most raw and direct exposition of a song.” Still, because the lyrics mostly lack poetic precision, “only a few moments truly resonate emotionally,” said Eric Renner Brown in Entertainment Weekly. “Baby, You Make Me Crazy” works because it pushes Smith beyond his comfort zone, and the “staggering” gospel confessional “Him” at last “blends poignant performance with powerful message.” Smith struggles in the song to reconcile his love for a man with his Christian faith, and the effect “truly thrills.”
Lee Ann Womack
The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone
Lee Ann Womack has a rare ability to make sentimentality sound sincere, said Steve Horowitz in PopMatters.com. If you know her mainly for the schmaltzy 2000 megahit “I Hope You Dance,” you might be surprised by the emotional range the 51-year-old country star exhibits on her latest album. It “redeems her from the curse of being overly popular by being so damn good.” Right from the start, the 14-track set “has a cinematic quality to it,” said Brittney McKenna in NPR.org. Plaintive a capella vocals open “All the Trouble,” one of seven songs written by Womack herself, before rough-and-tumble guitars jump in and she builds to a sinewy chorus that “sparkles like lightning” against a midnight backdrop. The rest “effortlessly ebbs and flows between torch songs and Texas twang,” as Womack’s voice proves “crystalline enough to shine through dusky arrangements” but raw enough to put complex emotions across. The effort affirms Womack’s standing as “one of American roots music’s foremost auteurs.”