Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

The Silver Bullet ~ Little Women (2019)



Synopsis
: Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Thoughts: It’s a curious thing, watching this first trailer for the much-anticipated holiday release of Little Women.  I mean, it’s not exactly like we’ve been starved for adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.  There was a modern remake last year, a well-regarded BBC mini-series in 2017, and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder still ranks high on my list.  Let’s not forget the Katherine Hepburn entry from 1933 or the one in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor among the dozens of other takes on the source novel.  All this to say I was surprised director Greta Gerwig chose this project as her follow-up to her breakout hit Lady Bird.  To me, the way the preview is cut feels too indie twee for me, but Gerwig has assembled a heck of a wonderful cast with Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Laura Dern (Smooth Talk), and Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) getting into the period costumes to once again bring Alcott’s characters to the screen.

Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.

Movie Review ~ Incredibles 2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Everyone’s favorite family of superheroes is back but this time Helen is in the spotlight, leaving Bob at home with Violet and Dash to navigate the day-to-day heroics of “normal” life.

Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, Huckleberry “Huck” Milner, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini

Director: Brad Bird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In this age of fast turnaround, never-ending binge options, and instant gratification, audiences don’t usually have to wait very long to get more of what they love. When Pixar’s The Incredibles opened in 2004, it was right in the studio’s heyday where they couldn’t lose and the spy adventure was a bona fide winner. Boasting innovative computer animation and pitched at a breakneck pace, it signaled a shift in tone that felt like a steppingstone to another level of prestige. Though Pixar famously claimed an aversion to sequels in favor of original concepts, after winning the Best Animated Feature film Oscar, it seemed like a sure bet another Incredibles adventure would be in the cards.

Well here we are 14 long years later and the Parr family has finally returned to the big screen in Incredibles 2 and the wait was most definitely worth it. Though computer animation technology has advanced leaps and bounds in the decade since the original was released, Pixar has fashioned a sequel that sits side by side with its predecessor on a high shelf. Re-watching The Incredibles in preparation for the sequel, I was struck by how, uh, quaint the film looks after all these years. It was still an entertaining ride, don’t get me wrong, but what once looked shiny and new then seems positively retro now.

Right from the start, the film hits the ground running by literally picking up where the first movie left off.  It’s a very Back to the Future II way to go by having the two films overlap in this way, effectively joining two separate movies into potentially one uninterrupted spree.  Mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, Copycat), Dad Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) spring into action against the mole-like Underminer, who first appeared at the tail end of the original. Through a city wide chase that racks up some costly amounts of destruction, it isn’t long before the family runs afoul of the government so intent on keeping superheroes illegal. When a brother and sister team intending to champion the legalization of superheroes approaches Helen, Bob, and their friend Lucious/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight), the heroes in hiding see it as an opportunity to show the world there’s still a need for crime fighters and help heroes from around the globe can come out of the shadows. Needing someone to be the face of the campaign, Helen becomes the star of this show, only to be pursued by a mysterious villain known as The Screenslaver who has big plans for a gathering of international heroes at sea.

Meanwhile, back at home, Bob is in charge of the kids. Between helping Dash with his math homework, (he learns the perils of New Math) and giving the lovesick Violet some advice on boys, he fails to notice his younger son Jack-Jack starting to develop a whole host of strange powers of his own. Jack-Jack is unquestionably the main attraction in Incredibles 2 and with good reason, his scenes are silly yet hysterical that result in some astounding physical comedy sequences that are pretty dazzling. Like much of the film, Jack-Jack’s adventures with his super powers blaze across the screen with color and sound so quickly that I’m sure I didn’t catch all of the sight gags created by the Pixar gang.

I’d put this sequel on an equal plane with the first film, maybe slightly higher just due to its clever construct and entertainment factor. The voice work is consistently good and it’s nice to hear interesting casting choices like Bob Odenkirk (Nebraska) and Catherine Keener (Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) as the brother and sister duo, not to mention the grand return of fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by writer/director Brad Bird, Tomorrowland).  It’s also extremely funny, producing several laugh out loud moments that often caught me off-guard.  It’s sometimes easy to get a kick out animated films but it’s rare for one to elicit a well earned guffaw…and Incredibles 2 has more than a few of these instances.

At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is the longest Pixar film to date but it moves so fast and furious that you’re likely to either skip looking at your watch completely or sneak a peek as the film nears its conclusion. Sure, there are some overstuffed bits but if you’re going to the movies and paying through the nose for tickets and concessions for the whole family, don’t you want to get your money’s worth? Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) knows how to give fans what they want, nicely continuing the tone of a kid-friendly Bond film that’s still a bit dark and definitely not for super young tykes. Parents, heed the PG rating because this one gets a bit intense and, coupled with Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) robust score, can be quite loud.

Special Note: Don’t be late!  The Pixar short shown before the movie, Bao, is another winner!

The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

Movie Review ~ Nebraska

nebraska

The Facts:

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  If one were to look at through the seven films that Alexander Payne has directed, one could conclude that the director loves a good road trip.  Four of his films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska) deal with the central characters making some sort of journey from their home to a destination not totally familiar.  It’s through this trek that they discover new truths about themselves and the people that surround them.

You’d think that after three films this trope would get old but Payne once again demonstrates dexterity as a film craftsman that helps keep Nebraska on a focused course.  He’s not alone in his success, though, thanks to stark black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael.  Papamichael’s luscious lensing of the dense tropical locations of The Descendants is countered quite nicely with the way he turns his camera onto the vast open expanses of the Midwest.

Skilled directing and excellent cinematography aside, a movie this delicate has to have the right cast to convey its message and Payne has assembled another ensemble that works in harmony with Bob Nelson’s script to create an array of broken (and hilarious characters).

Center stage is veteran actor Bruce Dern who delivers a career high performance in an already richly celebrated resume of films from the last four decades.  He’s Woody Grant, an alcoholic of creaking bones and wispy hair that could be either drifting into senility or simply not caring what he remembers any more.  When he receives a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like compay letting him know he’s a millionaire, he becomes fixated on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize and buy that truck he always wanted.

Much to the chagrin of his brusque wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), his stereo salesman son David (Will Forte) agrees to pack up his car and take his dad those many miles…because Woody has already tried to walk there on more than one occasion.  During the road trip there’s your typical father/son bonding but a stop in Woody’s hometown for a visit with old family, friends, and friendly enemies threatens to derail the journey altogether.

What Payne does so well is find new ways of exposing family secrets in a way that doesn’t feel trite or forced.  There’s a definite history of the Grant family in this rural rest stop where they find themselves and anyone that’s come from a small town will get a good laugh out of the way that news spreads fast amongst even the most out of touch townspeople.  The funniest moments (and Nebraska has quite a few) spring from the most mundane goings on and that’s the beauty of the discoveries Payne offers up.

Even at nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have a lot of slack moments.  You’d think that once Woody and David get off the road and basically wander around this quiet town that there’d be one or two moments where the film would lose some steam but in fact it only gets more interesting as its then that we truly learn more about Woody’s past and how his character influenced how he formed and raised his own family.

Deeply funny with a hint of a somber future, Nebraska still is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Curmudgeonly Dern and the irascible Squibb are sure-fire Oscar nominees but special mention should also go to Forte for stretching his dramatic chops far beyond the confines of his previous post-Saturday Night Live opportunities.  Hitch your wagon to this cross-country comedy and enjoy the ride.

The Silver Bullet ~ Nebraska

nebraska

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Release Date:  November 15, 2013

Thoughts: As a fan of the majority of director Alexander Payne’s work (including my favorite film of 2011, The Descendants), I’m eagerly awaiting his latest piece which won lead actor Bruce Dern the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Filmed in glorious black and white, this road trip dramedy looks spiked with Payne’s observant style and wry wit.  It should be interesting to see how Will Forte fares as Dern’s exasperated son, especially considering that up until now he hasn’t had much of a chance to show off any dramatic chops.  This is high on my list of films to see. 

Oh…and I am always excited when I see a director use a retro film logo (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh also like pulling these out before their films)