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 ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

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 ~ Midsommar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhem Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe

Director: Ari Aster

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: For all the unfettered glee I feel every time a new horror movie comes out, such as the recently released Annabelle Comes Home, and as much as I love a gooey creature feature like the upcoming Crawl, I must admit to experiencing an overwhelming bout of anxiety when staring down a screening like Midsommar. It’s not just because I knew it clocked in at nearly two and a half hours, either, but it’s something about films of this particular genre of horror that I find deeply unsettling. Watching what should be idyllic slowly turn into a nightmare with no escape is what I imagine it must feel like to be in a pot of water slowly brought to a roiling boil.

Though it feels like it’s been out longer, it’s only been a year since writer/director Ari Aster dealt his first major blow to my nerves with Hereditary. The 2018 jaw-dropper came out of the festival circuit with a great deal of buzz and mostly delivered on its promise of classy scares wrapped up in a family drama. Lead by an astoundingly terrific performance by Toni Collette, the movie only stumbled in its final moments. The first time I saw the film that final misstep was enough for me to dismiss it almost completely but revisiting it later and watching it with a more holistic view of the characters I found more to appreciate in Aster’s vision. I still really hated that ending, though.

My hope is that you haven’t been inundated with trailers for Midsommar yet and my advice is to avoid any additional previews or clips for the film before seeing it. That way, you can let the tension build at Aster’s pace and not be waiting for particular images or sequences you already know are coming. This is a deliberate movie that takes it’s time toying with the audience and I’m guessing that’s going to alienate the shifty moviegoer that expects a scare every ten minutes. Like Hereditary, Midsommar isn’t in any rush to reveal its secrets or play by a standard set of rules.   Also similar to Aster’s previous work, his sophomore film makes some strangely calculated missteps that have the completely wrong effect on the audience at the worst possible time.

Before the title card pops up, Aster has already given the audience a taste of the kind of emotional toll the movie will take. Still reeling from a recent trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh, The Commuter) is invited by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, On the Basis of Sex) to tag along on a summer trip to Sweden with his three friends. All are attending a midsummer festival in the remote village where Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) grew up. Anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, All Good Things) feels this is the perfect subject for his ongoing thesis while Mark (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers) is there for the girls and life experience. Already on the fringe for being seen as Christian’s emotionally troubled girlfriend, Dani’s presence adds a layer of fraught tension into what was to be a freewheeling trip of a lifetime.

Arriving in the commune as the nine day celebration is about to begin, the group is welcomed with open arms by the friendly folk and are eventually introduced to the culture and rules of the land. Right off the bat, the weirdness of the place is palpable but Aster wisely tempers that by having Dani and her friends not turn into crass, ugly Americans. Instead, they are presented as identifying the customs as strange but recognizing a cultural specificity they just might not understand immediately. This helps the audience, too, in accepting why the visitors don’t pack it up and hit the road the moment the first ominous event occurs.

I’ll stop with giving away more of the plot at this point because once the festival truly begins all bets are off and nothing can really prepare you for what happens. Yes, some of the events are probably what you think they are but there are more turns that you won’t be able to see coming. I wasn’t able to watch several parts of the film, the visuals were just too upsetting and not simply because of any violence or gore but because of some emotional sadness that is attached to what occurs. Like Hereditary, there’s little pleasure to be derived at what befalls the characters (good or bad) and by the time the film ended I was appropriately rattled.  Make no doubt about it, as extreme as Hereditary was in parts, Midsommar aims for a higher squirm factor and achieves it with fairly little effort.

Without a strong lead, the film wouldn’t have been as effective as it was and Aster lucked out again with a perfect star. Pugh is still gaining momentum in Hollywood and no matter how well this does at the box office I expect the movie to help increase her cache for future projects. While it doesn’t afford her quite the satisfactory journey as Collette was given in Hereditary, there’s plenty of meat on the bone for Pugh to chew on. Reynor’s character is trickier and without giving too much away you have to get to a certain place with him for the climax to work and I didn’t quite make it. Still…major kudos to him for participating in a scene that will likely be the most talked about and shared on the internet. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with particularly good attention paid to the casting of the villagers. Down to the smallest walk-on role Aster has chosen people that I completely believed were a part of this tribe.  Extra special notice to Gunnel Fred as Siv, the materfamilias of the commune that welcomes the outsiders in and then expects their full participation as the festival reaches its most pivotal ceremony.

Do I feel the movie could have been shorter? Sure, I mean two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to spend with these themes and this type of extreme experience. It’s an unsettling film and while it takes an unfortunate turn near the end that elicited mood-shattering laughs from the audience, it manages to get back into its lane by the time the credits roll. With Hereditary, I was willing to give it another go because the family dynamics were something I was interested in exploring a bit more. While I enjoyed Midsommar and understood its themes, I’m not certain it’s one I could see again…there’s just too much sadness involved.  Still, if you can stomach it and have a hunger for elevated horror this is one to seek out and sink down into.

The Silver Bullet ~ Midsommar



Synopsis
: What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Thoughts: Horror movies are always a bit divisive between elitist critics and populist cinephiles but 2018’s Hereditary managed to unite them almost universally.  It took me a second watch to truly appreciate what writer/director Ari Aster was going for and even then I still had issues with the finale.  That aside, I’m looking forward to Aster’s next summer screen scare, Midsommar and from the looks of this second trailer audiences are in for another squirmy ride through some very freaky goings-on.  I like that the film is set completely in the daylight, giving Aster and his actors little room to hide – I just hope this time the ending can live up to everything that has come before.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.