“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
“White noise”, both figuratively and literally, may be an apt description of Noah Baumbach’s dialogue style, a skill he has deployed with varying effectiveness over the course of his filmography. White Noise, adapted from Don DeLillo’s breakout novel, seeks to explore the anxieties at play in a typical 1980s American middle class family, a pervasive existential dread and specifically fear of death. As someone with an apparently atypical relationship with my own mortality, I am perhaps not best placed to opine on Baumbach’s presentation but these were frustrating characters to observe navigating their issues. This is through no fault of the actors — Adam Driver is an ever-reliable lead, as a professor who is more a performer than an educator, and Greta Gerwig is similarly effective as his wife, though her character becomes increasingly absent over the course of the film. Divided into a series of discrete but thematically connected events, the most resonant was a train derailment that spews a toxic cloud into the air — whilst the children worried, Jack displayed a complacency that they would be unaffected by the disaster, shielded by their privilege — and there seems to be an underlying suggestion that American society is particularly ill-equipped to deal with events outside their control. This broader social satire is White Noise at its best, like man who demands attention because he is scared, as if his fear would be validated if deemed newsworthy. The detailed period recreation is impressive, and at times astonishing like a meticulously stocked supermarket filled with old branding. Production, costuming and acting are each impressive in isolation but White Noise feels considerably less than the sum of its parts, its increasingly absurdist tone distancing the audience from the subject matter.
“Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
Barbie’s opening riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (seen in the teaser trailer) feels like a statement of intent: it is meaningless to children whilst establishing the themes of feminism and the doll’s historical context. Although Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfectly cast — each able to portray insecurity and heartache beneath the plastic veneer — director Greta Gerwig was the primary draw for me, because she is such a surprising choice for Mattel to entrust its most valuable brand. She and Noah Baumbach have penned a hugely ambitious script that grapples with identity, women’s liberation, corporate and social satire, and patriarchy within the framework of Barbie and Ken travelling to the real world. I have never seen cellulite used as a call to adventure before, but that is also where the themes begin to muddle. Early on we see how perfection can be its own prison, forcing Barbie to hide her existential crisis, yet her quest for most of the film is restoration of that “perfection”. There is pointed commentary, like the undertone of violence in the attention that Barbie receives in the real world by comparison to Ken. Most of the satire is gentle, however, the film needing to appease its corporate masters and appeal to a core audience which adores the toy. The production design and attention to detail (like a waterless shower) is exquisite, like The Lego Movie embracing the limitations of the toy. Arguably its strongest allegory is when Ken (who as a doll has no identity beyond Barbie’s himbo boyfriend) discovers on arrival in the real world that men can hold all manner of jobs and power, this reversal providing a stark illustration of how important Barbie’s representation of women can be for girls. Yet the narrative result is for Ken to introduce patriarchy to Barbieland and inexplicably succeed. A rant about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman (and, by extension, how it is impossible for a doll representing women to be liked) is astute but swiftly followed by the Barbies manipulating the Kens into turning on one another, culminating in a huge song and dance number (allowing Simu Liu to shine as a rival Ken). Thematically, it’s a bold and broad mess of competing ideas. The thing is, it’s all really entertaining. If superhero films can be praised for their entertainment value despite underdeveloped attempts at sociopolitical commentary, so too can Barbie.
“I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.”
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel blends a wonderful cast with modern feminist sensibilities. Where Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version was a direct translation of the novel, Gerwig is more ambitious in her approach. The most obvious change is choosing to tell story out of order, creating a meta narrative in the way scenes are juxtaposed. Introducing the women as young adults also reduces the inclination to infantilise them as children. It works best for those already familiar with the material as the chronology can feel slightly disjointed. Hearing of Laurie’s failed proposal at the start also robs the scene of any power when it finally arrives late in the film, but it also alters the way one views his childhood relationship with the girls. The key casting is Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet (both of whom starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird). Ronan makes Jo’s proud wilfulness overtly dislikable in some scenes, trusting that we will come to understand her as the film proceeds. Meanwhile, Chalamet’s Laurie is both charming and brusque, with nuanced variation to his relationships with each of the sisters. The ambiguous ending, seemingly introduced by Gerwig as something of a critique, may offend purists, but it is entirely fitting for this adaptation.
“I lost track somewhere — what was real, what was performance.”
Jackie is an unusual biopic that seeks to present the woman through a narrow period of just a few weeks, focused almost exclusively on the assassination of JFK and the immediate aftermath, with occasional flashbacks going only so far as her time in the White House. Those hoping for a broader look at her life will be disappointed. Given the private nature of most scenes, it is evident that most of the script is highly speculative which makes it all the stranger that Jackie often struggles to delve beneath its subject’s iconic surface, with emotional resonance coming mostly from Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of the supportive, grieving Bobby Kennedy. The film does pose incisive questions about Jackie’s motivations following the assassination: a kind perspective is that she was preserving JFK’s legacy but a less generous one is that, as a student of history, she was seeking to craft that legacy for her husband and for herself. If nothing else she had certainly become a Kennedy.
“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.