Synopsis: A teenager discovers that the newcomer in his neighborhood is a vampire, so he turns to an actor in a television horror show for help dealing with the undead. Stars: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, Amanda Bearse, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding, Stephen Geoffreys, Art Evans Director: Tom Holland Rated: R Running Length: 106 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Growing up, I think it’s safe to say that any kid with a taste for horror films visiting a video store who passed by the VHS for Fright Night stopped dead in their tracks. That fantastic poster art alone sold a significant number of tickets when the movie was released in August of 1985, and I’m sure it did the same for the home video release later down the road. I recall being fascinated by that fanged image hovering above a tiny home and counting the days until I was old enough to check out what terrors Fright Night held in store.
Before the release of Fright Night, its writer/director Tom Holland had established himself as a reputable screenwriter in Hollywood. Crafting well-received genre titles such as The Beast Within and Class of 1984, both released in 1982, he followed that up the next year with the successful continuation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. I’m a big fan of what Holland did with Psycho II, and it’s a sequel that plays like a Jaws 2, meaning that it couldn’t possibly hope to rise to the same bar as its predecessor but, taken on its own merits, is quite entertaining. The year before Fright Night, Holland was credited with the cult favorite Cloak & Dagger and the sleazy Scream for Help, but his mix of horror and comedy in this 1985 fanged feature firmly put him on the map.
High schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale, Mannequin: On the Move) is your average all-American kid in small-town U.S.A. He has a virginal girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse, Bros), and a wacky best friend (Stephen Geoffreys, 976-EVIL) dubbed “Evil Ed” by those that know him best. Living with his single mother, he often falls asleep watching his favorite program, Fright Night, a late-night horror show hosted by washed-up actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, Dead of Winter), the star of many of the B-movie titles shown in the program. The relative peace of Charley’s life and quiet in the neighborhood is upended when Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon, The Sentinel), his new next-door neighbor, moves in.
Staying up late one night, Charley watches Jerry and his live-in friend Billy (Jonathan Stark, Career Opportunities) move some alarming items in, including what appears to be a coffin. When several local girls start to turn up missing, one that Charley swears he saw going into Jerry’s house days before, he begins to suspect that there is more to his new neighbor than a tendency for only coming out in the evening. Screams in the night coming from next door and glowing eyes staring back at him from dark windows convince him Jerry might be…a vampire. Enlisting the help of his favorite vampire hunter/television host (who’s just been canned and needs cash), Charley and his friends start to poke around Jerry’s house, arousing his attention in the worst way possible. Now, with a vampire on his trail and no one believing him, Charley will face a real fright night as he faces an evil that threatens everyone he loves.
Holland has a good ear for dialogue, and while more than a little of Fright Night stayed planted firmly in 1985, the comedy has stayed fang-sharp, and the horror still has bite. It’s a treat to revisit every few years and pairs nicely with 1988’s Fright Night Part II which is hard to find but worth the hunt. I liked the 2011 remake starring Colin Farrell because it had generous nods to this original endeavor, but nothing is going to top what felt (and still more or less feels) fresh about Fright Night. It’s well made and targeted at a critical audience that ate it up at the time and then passed it down through two generations.
Two films starring Joan Crawford that I had never seen had been calling to me for a while, and I was having trouble deciding which ones to watch for 31 Days to Scare. Ultimately, both were so short and interesting that I decided to bundle them for A Double Shot of Crawford. If Crawford is the true star of Berserk, she was more of a cameo in I Saw What You Did, but both show off her tremendous screen presence.
Berserk (1969) The Facts:
Synopsis: A scheming circus owner finds her authority challenged when a vicious killer targets the show. Stars: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy Director: Jim O’Connolly Rated: Approved Running Length: 96 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: After a long and celebrated career of almost 45 years and nearly 80 films, Joan Crawford’s work in the movies was struggling in the late ‘60s. She would find the occasional job here and there, but rumors of her being difficult to work with had proceeded her, often proven true by the actress’s noted drinking problems late in life. Her work with William Castle on 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did bolstered her into the B-movie horror genre after starring in the A-List suspense thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. By the time 1969’s Berserk pulled up, Crawford was done with the American film business and was looking to the European market.
A British film production, Berserk is almost a double-bill film in and of itself. It serves as a fine suspense thriller with Crawford well cast (and well-lit), and it also features several circus acts, bringing horror and spectacle together into one package. Your thoughts on the circus and its use of animals aside, it is fascinating to see the traveling entertainment all these years later to view some of its inner workings and oddities. While the fully performed circus routines tend to pad the feature (full disclosure, I fast-forwarded through many of them after a few minutes), I can see how their presence would add a selling point to those wanting an extended peek into the tent.
At its heart, Berserk is a murder-mystery whodunit and not a bad one at that. Someone starts to trim the roster of performers and staff of Crawford’s traveling circus, and it’s up to the dwindling members to find out who could be behind it all. A shocking opening finds a tightrope walker strangled by his rope, which also cleverly (or would it be cheekily?) reveals the title as shocked spectators look on. Unbothered by this terrible death, ringmistress Monica Rivers (Crawford) asks her business partner Albert Dorando (Michael Gough, Venom) to locate a new act immediately. Lucky for them, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), another tightrope walker with an added element of danger, has shown up looking for a job. He fits the bill, is ruggedly handsome, and instantly has eyes for single-mother Monica, so he’s hired. Their affair begins quickly, and soon, he wants to be taken on as part of the business.
When more people start to die, usually any that stand in the way of Monica or Frank getting what they want, the performers team up and begin to put the pieces together that perhaps it’s Monica behind the killings. This scene was a fun turning point of the movie, when the “freaks” get back at their master and, led into battle by the voluptuous Diana Dors; it’s when the film loosens its collar a bit and settles into having some fun with its cattiness. Dors and Crawford have some nice run-ins, and as the bodies pile up, more people arrive on the scene that may be helping or hindering the process. One of these is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy, Dark Places), sent to help the circus pinpoint its killer in disguise, and Angela Rivers (Judy Geeson, Lords of Salem), Monica’s estranged daughter stops by after getting kicked out of boarding school.
If there’s one place where the movie falters, it’s in a finale that’s a bit ludicrous even by the standard of these trashy-but-fun films. There’s a sense of not knowing how to wrap things up, so writers Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel chose the ending that shocks the most, even if it creates a multi-verse of plot holes. Up until that point, apart from the slightly slow circus acts, the genre pieces of Berserk had been quite fun to get a front-row seat for. For nothing else, it’s lovely to see Crawford looking glamorous and in complete control of the movie. As mentioned before, she’s rarely seen without a particular key light across her face, and it almost becomes comical by the end to have that same light on her no matter where she is or what time of day the scene takes place.
I Saw What You Did (1965) The Facts:
Synopsis: Teenagers Libby and Kit innocently spend an evening making random prank calls that lead to murderous consequences. Stars: Joan Crawford, Andi Garrett, Sarah Lane, Sharyl Locke, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Patricia Breslin, Joyce Meadows Director: William Castle Rated: Approved Running Length: 82 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In the horror genre, the name William Castle often goes hand in hand with a particular type of schlock B-movie cinema. While he initially began as a standard director of lower-grade films that studios could use to fill out double bills, he eventually turned his talent at marketing a movie with gimmicks and ploys from advanced advertising into a small cottage industry. Often the advanced buzz on a film was more interesting than the film itself. This is the guy that had a “fright break” in his 1961 film Homicidal that allowed guests to run out of the theater if they were too scared to stay for the end. I’ve watched that film, and while it isn’t particularly frightening, the 60-second countdown in the “fright-break” as a woman slowly walks toward a door to open creates a nerve frenzy that’s had to ignore.
By the time I Saw What You Did came about in 1965, Castle had also released 1959’s The Tingler, with vibrating devices installed in seats to give audiences a buzz whenever the titular creature had shown up. His idea around I Saw What You Did was to have seat belts installed in seats to prevent the viewer from leaping out due to fright. Maybe not on par with his previous stunts, but it still comes across as if you might want to proceed with caution if you consider buying a ticket. I find all these quite fun, but you can also understand why these campaigns went by the wayside. Not only were they hard to maintain as movie theaters across the country grew, but it also indicated the film needed a trick to entice audiences when the movie itself should be the draw.
At least with Castle, most of his films were easy to recommend. I’m always surprised at how nicely put together his movies are, and I Saw What You Did is no exception. Opening with such a spring in its step that you may wonder if you’ve started into a teeny-bopper comedy, we get introduced to Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) and Kit Austin (Sara Lane). They plan a night in at Libby’s house while her parents are away overnight. They’ll be a babysitter because Libby’s younger sister Tess (Sharyl Locke) has been ill, so Kit’s dad agrees that she can hang out at Libby’s isolated home on the outskirts of town.
When Kit arrives, and her dad has gone, the babysitter cancels, leaving Libby’s parents to make a last-minute decision to allow their teen daughter to have some adult responsibility. Libby can be in charge if they stay in the house and don’t go out. No sooner have they left than the teens, bored after Libby shows Kit around their expansive home and outdoor barn, start playing a fun telephone game. They flip through a phone book, pick a random name, and call the number, pranking whoever answers with silly questions or their favorite line: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” A call to Steve Marak (John Ireland) will turn their crank calling into a nightmare.
They first get Marak’s wife on the phone, and with the girls posing as a sultry woman, she confronts her husband, who is already in an aggravated state. Things get dicey from there, with Marak killing his wife and burying her body, only to receive another call from the giggly girls saying: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” Convinced there is a witness to his crime through a series of coincidences that involve Marak’s lusty neighbor (Joan Crawford), Marak identifies the address where the girls are calling from and makes a late-night beeline to them.
I went into I Saw What You Did, thinking it would be much different than it turned out. Maintaining a natural feeling of pep and capturing that teen spirit in the first half, the transition makes sense when it turns dark in the second, and we start to fear for the girl’s safety. There’s a lot of teen slang that makes for fun laughs, and Crawford is a campy treat as the nosy neighbor who can’t see she’s making eyes at a dangerous killer.
The film’s finale is quite scary, with Castle adding ample amounts of fog to his studio set and creating a sense of dread by doing very little. Films of this era often drew suspense from the editing, and Edwin H. Bryant cuts I Saw What You Did with efficient skill. It’s a full 82-minutes that rarely sags because of the performances (the two teens are terrific, as is the youngster playing the ill sister) and Castle’s eye for crafting visuals that give you the shivers is on target. That’s the kind of filmmaking that needs no trickery to promote.
Synopsis: A woman who raised herself in the marshes of the deep South becomes a suspect in the murder of a man with whom she was once involved. Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn Director: Olivia Newman Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 125 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: I’ve had the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens in my possession for well over two years, and once I heard Reese Witherspoon and her production company were adapting it for the big screen, I made the bold move of shifting it from the bookshelf to my nightstand. And that’s where it sat for the next several months. Always meeting my deadline, I finished the last chapter mere hours before my screening – a benefit because the characters were still alive in my head as the movie was beginning. Avoiding the marketing and as much casting info as possible allowed the situations and personalities screenwriter Lucy Alibar and director Olivia Newman brought to life in the feature film to make a good impression on me in real-time.
Fans of the tome will be happy to know that Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) has delivered an admirably faithful adaptation of the worldwide favorite, a mystery involving a young woman left on her own in a North Carolina marsh and the murder she becomes involved with. It retains the intricate time jumps holding the key to unlocking its mystery and does so without sacrificing any character along the way. Alibar manages to make a few improvements to what Owens laid out, considerately consolidating for the efficiency of the film what could be languidly explored on the page.
As a child, Kya saw her family members desert her one by one, starting with her mother. Eventually, left alone with her alcoholic father in their home deep in the marsh, she learns to fend for herself and make her way in life. Befriended by a local couple (Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who ensure Kya has food and clothing without making it feel like a handout, Kya grows up knowing her place in the gossip mill of small-town life. A teen Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh) falls for handsome Tate (Taylor John Smith, Blacklight), who shares her love for nature and unique feathers but doubts she will want to leave the safety of the marsh for a life with him once adult life becomes a necessity. Enter Chase (Harris Dickinson,The King’s Man), a popular boy that targets Kya as a conquest he can brag about to his friends. The charming man sweeps her off her feet roughly, like men trying to be a savior often do.
This history is recounted to Kya’s defense attorney (David Strathairn, Nomadland), a character in the book that’s been beefed up by Alibar to solve third-person narration issues which hindered the storytelling. Now, it’s Kya telling her story and how she winds up on trial for murdering one of the men in her life. Who it is is revealed early on, but I won’t say it here. If you read the novel, you’ll know who and the solution. While nothing about the mystery has been changed, minor details have been ironed out to tell the story at hand better.
Well-acted by a strong ensemble, I especially liked Macer (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and Hyatt (The Little Things) as Kya’s longtime surrogate guardian angels that knew her as a child and watched her grow into a woman that won’t follow the same rocky path as her family. Dickinson may be too oily, but it contrasts nicely with Smith’s squeaky clean chivalry. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the two look an awful lot alike, which is maybe the point, but it may be confusing to audiences. There are excellent brief turns from Garret Dillahunt (Army of the Dead) and a too-brief glimpse of Ahna O’Reilly (Bombshell) as Kya’s parents.
The star of the film is the star of the show too. Edgar-Jones, made an overnight star for her devastating work on Hulu’s Normal People, continues her rapid ascent to the A list with an understated but deeply affecting performance as Kya. In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s a captivating presence that’s key for an audience to want to root for her, even when we might not be sure of her innocence. Playing the sensitive moments with equal gravity as passages of assertive strength, Edgar-Jones feels this role in her bones and sells it well.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a solid example of how moving from page to screen can work exceedingly well when the right group of people gets together. Newman’s direction is unobtrusive and trusting of her actors, and the cinematography from Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place: Part II) captures the appeal of the marsh beautifully. Also beautiful? Mychael Danna’s (Life of Pi) ever-present score. Haunting (just like Taylor Swift’s closing credit song) and clarion, Danna helps the setting come alive. These prestige-y adaptations don’t often come around in the summer months like this. It’s clear that Sony isn’t exactly gunning for awards for this movie (though, in another dimensional fold, Edgar-Jones would undoubtedly have earned enough points to be on the shortlist for an Oscar) but instead attempting a nice bit of counter-programming.
Synopsis: A mother-and-son team of strange vampiric shapeshifting creatures able to stay alive only by feeding on the life-force of the innocent move to a small town to avoid discovery while searching for their next victim.
Stars: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Jim Haynie, Cindy Pickett, Ron Perlman, Lyman Ward, Dan Martin, Glenn Shadix
Director: Mick Garris
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: By 1992, the pickings in the Stephen King library of horrors to option into visual media properties was getting mighty slim. With most of the bestselling author’s novels getting a big (or small) screen adaptation, Hollywood had turned to his short stories to either use as chapters in anthologies or expanding them into full length features. Strangely, the writer had never put an idea to paper that was solely meant for the screen and so Sleepwalkers (or Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers as it was originally promoted) was something of a big deal when it was announced. Here was a rare commodity, a previously unknown story that fans would have no prior knowledge of going in. This could function to not let down those that had held his tomes in high regard only to be disappointed in the feature film version. On the other hand, much of what made King such a special writer in the first place was his way of getting into the mind of his characters and that was only something that could be seen on the page.
You must take this ungainly effort with a healthy dose of salt and vinegar then because at the end of the night is Sleepwalkers all that good of a Stephen King movie? No, not really. Does it work just fine as a mid-range horror film so popular in this era that delivers a few thrills here and there over the course of it’s barely 90-minute runtime? Absolutely. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the movie and revisit it frequently, mostly because of one performance (we’ll get to it) but also because it seems to have a sense that it’s kind of silly and decides at a certain point to lean into the camp of it all. It’s no Misery, but it’s no Maximum Overdrive either.
Opening in a hastily abandoned home in Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock’s The Birds took place) at a crime scene littered with feline carcasses that I’m sure made the folks at PETA scream bloody murder, we jump over to small town Indiana at the home of Charles Brady and his mother Mary. A good-looking high school student, Charles (Brian Krause) is the All-American boy next door on the outside but it’s all just a disguise that hides his true form: a nomadic shapeshifting werecat that feasts on virginal lifeforces. That’s bad news for classmate Tanya (Mädchen Amick), who just got asked out on a date by Charles and is about to have a devil of a time fending off his advances once he reveals what’s underneath his wholesome features and true intentions.
You see, while Charles has to make sure he’s satiated, he’s also responsible for ensuring his “mother” is also fed, and Mary (Alice Krige, She Will) is one ravenous mama. Well…maybe mama is too specific. It becomes clear quickly there’s more to this mother-son relationship than meets the eye and once Tanya proves to be significant trouble and more than Charles can handle, Mary has to step in and show her “son” how to get the job done right. The residents of the small town are unprepared for the vicious beasts and more than a few go down in bloody shreds as the longest date night of Tanya’s life rages on.
The chief reason to see (and enjoy) Sleepwalkers is Krige sinking her teeth into her role and slowly chewing it in small bites. Normally, this measured devouring would be more than any movie could tolerate but Krige possesses a special charm that makes her screen time almost giddy fun. Here’s an actress that looks like she could be doing Shakespeare biting fingers off of characters and carrying grown men over her shoulder while firing a gun. It’s a great pleasure to see her in action and you only wish King’s film had more of these trippy moments of delirium to keep up the strange sense of wonder. At least director Mick Garris (writer of Hocus Pocus) seems to understand the movie needs to sway into the mood of the what King has produced and not resist the urge to acknowledge that it is pretty goofy. I mean, the special effects range from neat-o to lame-o so the balance has to be struck somewhere in the middle for tone overall.
Despite making back it’s budget the film was seen as a disappointment when compared to King’s other, more sophisticated projects and Sleepwalkers is unfortunately often thought of in the lower rungs of his feature flicks. That’s a bummer because the cast is made up of fun genre players (Pacific Rim’s Ron Perlman, DeepStar Six’s Cindy Pickett and her then-husband Lyman Ward from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as Glenn Shadix from Beetlejuice) and Amick should have been a bigger star. Krige went on to be a memorable Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and continues to turn in impressive performances with great presence. If you’ve never seen it, it’s definitely one to check out if for nothing more than to further your Stephen King completism.
Synopsis: In the English countryside, Sarah Rexton, recently blinded in a horse-riding accident, moves in with her uncle’s family and gallantly adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks them.
Stars: Mia Farrow, Dorothy Alison, Robin Bailey, Diane Grayson, Brian Rawlinson, Norman Eshley, Paul Nicholas
Director: Richard Fleischer
Rated: GP (GP was an old rating from the MPAA that replaced the M rating. This was used from 1970 until 1972, when it was replaced with the PG rating.)
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I was young, well youngER, I always would write-off horror movies that were made in earlier eras because I didn’t think they really understood what the business was all about. The films were drab and slow-moving, they rarely had the blood and guts that I was seeking and forget about any masked killers stalking camp counselors around a lake favored by skinny dippers. Of course, now when I watch these classics, I’m struck by how well constructed they are and see that my reactions then were driven out of Hollywood conditioning me to expect a certain kind of shock every ten minutes. The need to build a modicum of suspense went out the door around the same time Jason found his hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III.
Take a movie like 1971’s See No Evil (also known as Blind Terror) for example. I’m sure if I had seen this one when I was in my teens I would have been bored to tears. Even despite it being far more intense than I could have imagined watching it today, I just don’t believe I would have been rushing over to my friends house desperate to add this to our sleepover roster along with Halloween and the Freddy films. Yet Richard Fleischer’s stately scare flick is quite frightening and features more than a few edge-of-your seat moments as we watch a young Mia Farrow evade a killer in an otherwise benign country estate.
Arriving at her uncle’s home after being blinded during a horse-riding accident, Sarah (Farrow) just wants to go back to her normal life, even if deep down she’s more than aware that it can never be the same. Attempting to be independent, she declines help up the stairs to her room or assistance in getting ready. One thing I questioned is that Sarah, or more to the point Farrow, seems readily comfortable just charging around the very expansive house with plenty of adornments without any hesitation – if she were newly blind, wouldn’t she at least be a bit cautious? That first night, she heads out to meet up with her boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley), leaving her aunt, uncle, and cousin at home…where they are murdered by a killer whom we only see from the waist down.
The bulk of the 89-minute film centers on Farrow returning home that evening, narrowly missing running into the bodies of her relatives, and then waking up the next morning and finally discovering not just the horrific scene but possibly a clue that would identify the killer. Trouble is that the killer has also realized their mistake and has returned to get the evidence. Bad news for Farrow and tense news for the viewer as we witness Sarah just barely avoiding being caught and/or seen by the intruder. Screenwriter Brian Clemens throws in a few tasty red herrings as we get to the bottom of the mystery but watching it through a 2021 lens it does paint Farrow’s character as a bit too helpless the more the film goes on. One wants to see her more of an active participant in securing her safety and not just mooning over the horses she wants to get back to riding.
For 1971 and a film that would be considered PG, this is creepy with a lot of shocking violence implicitly implied…especially in the final act. No spoilers, but there are some turns that would never pass muster on a ratings board now. A box office failure when it was released, See No Evil became popular again when broadcast on TV and with its (relative) lack of gory violence it could play easily without much editing that would chop it up. For fans of British horror or suspense, this is one to check out as a solid example of how to effectively get an audience chewing their fingernails to nubs over a shard of broken glass. (See it and you’ll know what I mean.)
Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer
Director: Luis Llosa
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature. Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast. Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.
Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences. Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper. Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades. Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.
So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots. And you know what? That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great. Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds. There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.
Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter. He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going. Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze. Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.
When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing. The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots. Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.
Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing? Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait. You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more. Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars. It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely. There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.
In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers. For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation. That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry. Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.
Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse. It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away. This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y. Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.
That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now. In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Bless French director Luc Besson, he just marches along to the beat of his own drummer. While directors aren’t necessarily involved with the marketing of their films, it’s hard not to watch these two teasers for Besson’s space operatic epic The Fifth Element and not see his influence all over them. Both teasers feature no plot description or final footage from the eye-popping film starring a blonde Bruce Willis and a barely-clothed Milla Jovovich, to say nothing of hearing villain Gary Oldman’s Foghorn Leghorn accent in all its glory. No, audiences would have to wait for a longer trailer to get a better picture of what Besson had in store, following on the heels of his well-liked but minor-hit Léon: The Professional in 1995. Make no mistake, The Fifth Element was a risky endeavor (as all Besson’s films are, see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for proof) and while it made only $63 million dollars here in the US, it netted a total worldwide gross of almost $265 million…so clearly overseas took to it far better than we did. I remember being in Spain the summer this was released and seeing the most gigantic billboards ever advertising this — truly an astonishing sight to behold. Watching the feature film again recently I was struck by how ahead of its time it was. It’s silly but fun and totally the Europop comfort food we’ve come to expect from Besson, though these early teasers hint at something a little less focused on style and more on inter-galactic adventure. And no Diva Dance…that would have to wait for the main event.
Synopsis: A soon to be divorced Beverly Hills socialite is determined to prove to her husband and herself that she can finish what she starts out to do, by becoming a den mother to a troop of Beverly Hills Girl Scouts.
Stars: Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Audra Lindley, Betty Thomas, Mary Gross, Jenny Lewis, Ami Foster, Carla Gugino, Heather Hopper, Kellie Martin, Emily Schulman, Tasha Scott, Aquilina Soriano, Stephanie Beacham, Karen Kopins, Dinah Lacey, Shelley Morrison, Tori Spelling
Director: Jeff Kanew
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review (The Movie): I know this is going to come as a great shock to you but when I was a youngster I hung around our local movie rental store quite a lot. This was before the big chains started to dominate so Good Neighbor Video had the, uh, good fortune of getting a nearly daily visit from me which included a lengthy browse of any given section and long discussions with the bored college age clerks about the latest releases. My enthusiasm for not just the movies but for the rental business in general resulted in the eventual winning over of the middle-aged owners (a true mom and pop set-up) and they were kind enough to toss my way a few publicity extras they weren’t able to use.
Back then these stores were flooded with promo materials to hype even the tiniest of releases. Anything from small desk displays of movie scenes to playful mobiles with actors heads dancing around a lit up movie title to full size standees, there was always something new coming out. The most traditional of these and my favorite was the movie poster because they were so easy to display and they covered the aging wallpaper in my bedroom. At this video store, they had room to display about eight posters and the owners always opted for, obviously, the latest and most exciting releases, far less than the 20 or 30 posters they’d get every month to coincide with the new batch of titles coming out. I remember vividly stopping by the video store and getting a new roll of unused posters, bringing them home, and unrolling this one, which was right on top.
Even at a mere nine years old, I knew who Shelley Long was, having been taken by my parents to see her previous film, 1987’s Hello Again. While Long had already starred in a handful of successful movies, I’d learn later how 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills was her first film after famously leaving her hit show Cheers at the close of its fifth season. What I didn’t know at the time was Troop Beverly Hills had tanked at the box office, making a mere $8 million off of an $18 million budget and it’s pending VHS release was its final step before fading into obscurity…but I knew I had to see it.
Well, I eventually did see Troop Beverly Hills and it was everything I wanted it to be and more. Fun, funny, with jokes that I understood and even more jokes that I didn’t, and it was all wrapped up in a bouncy bow by its star. I was too young to scoff at the fact it was ignored at the box office and maligned by snooty toot critics but over the years any time I returned to it I never could figure out just what about this didn’t strike the right chord at the time. Watching it again as an adult at a fun screening at our local Alamo Drafthouse (more on that below) I was kind of amazed by how well the movie holds up…and not just as a safe PG sleepover staple. Providing a sturdy message for young girls on the road to figuring themselves out and not worrying about what icky boys want to see, Troop Beverly Hills earns its patches and then some for comedic longevity.
Spoiled California housewife Phyllis Neffler (Long, Outrageous Fortune) has signed up to donate her time before. She’s tried giving her hands across America saving the whales but can’t quite follow through with anything due to her busy shopping schedule. However, with her marriage to Fred (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in shambles she needs a new focus and decides to take on the role of Wilderness Girl troop leader for her pre-teen daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis) and her seven gal pals from elite families in Beverly Hills. Resistant to their new den mother at first after seeing a revolving door of previous candidates, the troop warms up once they realize she’s just as inexperienced and lost as they are and won’t retreat at the first sign of conflict.
That’s good for them but bad for Velda Plender (Betty Thomas, who eventually became a semi-successful film/television director, working with Long again in The Brady Bunch Movie) an ex-Army nurse now the de facto rule keeper for the Wilderness Girl troop leaders. A bully and a cheat, she recoils at the way Phyllis tries to treat the organization as the fun experience it as and less like the survivalist preparation Velda would prefer it to be. Dispatching her cronie Annie (Mary Gross, Big Business) to infiltrate Phyllis and her troop, Velda tries to stop Troop Beverly Hills from making it to the annual Jamboree and being named troop of the year.
Adding a dose of real life fun to the mix is knowing the movie is loosely based on the life of producer Ava Ostern Fries who turned her stories of being a Brownie Leader into the basis for the movie and it’s a concept that has a lot of legs to it. Sure, it’s easy to plumb the mines of the vapid lives of the rich and famous for ways to get Phyllis out of her comfort zone but the screenplay never sets out to make her (or the girls) look stupid, inept, or less capable than anyone else if they just set their mind to it. If anything, the movie levels its harshest criticism at those that demand rule and order above all else in refusing to let people dance to the beat of their own drum. While a great many jokes are made about Phyllis and her monetary ways, that spend spend spend attitude is countered with a backstory about the lean early years of her marriage where her thriftiness helped keep her family together.
It’s a pity this first post-Cheers film wasn’t a success because Long (dressed in a never-ending display of hysterically artistic outfits by famed costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, Stella) is joyously winning as the effervescent Phyllis. Too self-involved to know when Velda is making fun of her and, frankly, too above it all to care what she thinks anyway, Long works hard to give Phyllis more than just the cookie cutter image of the Beverly Hills stay at home and shop housewife. Playing the villain, Thomas is a hoot and works well solo or pinging off of Long or the meek Gross playing the mousey Marcie to Thomas’s pernicious Peppermint Patty. As the lone male with any significant presence, Nelson has to be beefcake sometimes and agitator at others and he manages to make both interesting without getting in the way of Phyllis or her girls.
Making up the rest of the cast, aside from a now-preserved in amber amount of 80s celebrities that many youngsters nowadays won’t even understand the references to, are an array of young starlets pulled from television shows, commercials, and minor roles in afterschool specials. Aside from Kellie Martin who had a steady career on several hit TV shows watch for a fresh-faced Carla Gugino (San Andreas) as a snobby brat who realizes Phyllis and the troop are the closest thing she has to a dependable family environment. All are energetic but there seems to be at least one too many as they fail to be quite as defined as they could be. Of the ones that do shine, most memorable is Tasha Scott’s Jasmine who receives the best introduction and gets to sing the unofficial (and officially catchy) theme song of the movie, “Cookie Time” on Rodeo Drive while wearing a Tina Turner wig.
For a movie so locked in its time and place, it’s remarkable how little the movie has shown its wrinkles. It still plays like gangbusters and I think the more trivial asides have actually gotten more meaningful when you consider how marginalized little girls/young women have become in the years since the film was released. It may have packed up its theatrical campground early but Troop Beverly Hills found a new life in overnight rentals in the years since. Give it a watch…you’ll be surprised by how much you enjoy it.
Review (The Quote-Along): So why review Troop Beverly Hills now, you may ask? Well, first off, here was a chance to see the movie on the big screen, something I’d never had the chance to do until now. The Alamo Drafthouse in Woodbury, MN has a way with their programming and finding the right mix between bringing back underseen gems and stirring fond nostalgia and when I saw this one was coming up I just couldn’t resist. A bonus was that this was to be no ordinary screening of Troop Beverly Hills where the audience would sit idly by while noshing on their loaded fries, pizza, or cleverly crafted cocktail skillfully served by stealthy servers. No, this was to be a two pronged bit of fun.
First…it was part of their Champagne Cinema signature series of screenings. I’ll let Alamo’s website describe what that is in detail:
Just like a glass of bubbles, there’s a special type of film that can lift your spirits and add a bit of sparkle to your day. From movies you watched endlessly at slumber parties to new favorites that feel like old friends, Champagne Cinema provides a generous pour of heart, humor and happy endings. Each film is paired with a themed cocktail to match the effervescence on screen, and the audience is encouraged to toast, cheer and swoon along. So bring along a friend (or five) and prepare for a theatrical experience that pops. Bottoms up!
So while the theme drinks of the night were The Freddie and The Thin Mint Cocktail there were still more surprises yet to come because audiences would also be treated to a Quote-Along experience featuring animated subtitles and our own themed gifts. The gifts were a green beret so we could all be Wilderness Girls (and Guys) and a set of stickers/patches modeled after the ones seen in the film. All in all, a fun bit of swag to walk into and away with and while I didn’t partake in the cocktails both sounded better than other themed drinks at similar events.
As to the actual quote-along experience? Well, I think living in the Midwest it all depends on the audience and the movie. I’ve been to a number of movie parties where this kind of audience participation is encouraged and though the theater employs a nice hype-man that comes out at the beginning to get the crowd warmed up, the energy level just never rises above a low simmer. Still, this was the first time the quotes were on the screen and that seemed to stimulate more shout-outs…and definitely more signing when “Cookie Time” came around.
Strangely, the front half of the movie seemed loaded with quotes at every turn with not every one being something I’d consider a valued line from the film but it definitely tapered off as the comedy went on. I’m wondering if that was somehow intentional because it was in that final 40 minutes or so when the subtitles that appeared seemed to really select the most well known quotes. What’s great about this set-up is that even if you are a little shy you feel a bit more emboldened sitting in the dark to yell out your favorite quote without feeling embarrassed.
If you have an Alamo Drafthouse near your residence you should check the theater out regardless but definitely keep your eye out for these types of special events. The price may seem a little high (anywhere from $12 to $16) but that’s also what you’d pay for a normal ticket on a weekend and you don’t get the props or one of a kind experience this offers. The best bet is to find a movie you really like and try your first Movie Party out and see what you think. It really is a fun new way to spend a night at the movies.
Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.
Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle
Director: Adil & Bilall (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable. There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs. And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.
When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen. Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations. By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way. It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible. Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it. It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.
Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series. You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film. However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake. I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower. That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?
Well, here’s the thing. It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995. By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all. In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.
Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops. Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence. Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair. Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals. Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.
In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished. There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.
While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years. Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him. Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions. More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.
I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures. It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well. Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution. They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in. With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face. Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.
If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director. Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film. As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.
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
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.