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 ~ Beautiful Boy


The Facts
:

Synopsis:  Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.

Stars: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: After so many landmark films about the perils of addiction have been made featuring numerous memorable performances, it takes a special story not to mention top flight actors and on-the-ball filmmakers to make the case for another entry. What is different about this story that sets it apart from what has come before? Where and what is the message? Is there a lesson to be learned? A final thought to hold tight to? It’s an uphill battle of questions for even the most talented of professionals to answer which is why the final take-away from Beautiful Boy is that it’s a respectably well made film of a story that feels too familiar.

Based on the popular memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy documents the journey both men go through as they deal with Nic’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. A child of divorce, Nic was a bright young man who became entangled with narcotics at a young age and continued to use through his attempts at going to college and after his various stints in rehab. Bouncing between his parents that tried in their own flawed way to pull their son out of his darkness, Nic (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) continually hit rock bottom but couldn’t stay sober for long stretches of time. He becomes homeless, despondent, overdoses, and watches as friends (some of whom he brought into his drug orbit) overdose as well. It’s a pattern that repeats itself often throughout the film, to intentionally maddening results for David (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), his wife (Maura Tierny, Insomnia), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, Goosebumps)

Chronicling this frustrating journey, screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion) effectively blends elements from both memoirs that give a narrative through line but never truly fleshes out the lasting effects Nic’s addiction has on the two men and the people in their lives.   I almost wish they had chosen one perspective to focus on and stuck with that or done a better job at sectioning off David’s story and telling that in parallel to Nic’s side of things at the same time. As it stands, we get bits of pieces of this long road the Sheff family traveled without being able to stop and explore the territory.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (director of the stunning Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), the movie is slow to get started but does have some highly effective moments when it starts to cut its own path. We’ve all seen movies about addiction but the recovery aspect isn’t something covered in detail that often. The film works best when we see Nic on the other side of his binges and trying to put his life back together. These passages work so well because when he eventually falls victim to his addictions again we feel that grief right along with everyone else. When David finally stops trying to aggressively parent Nic and treats him like an adult with consequences, it’s a powerful moment for him (and the actor playing him) – I wish there were more moments like this throughout the movie but they are few and far between.

As indicated, the performances are good but not totally revelatory. While I applaud Chalamet’s approach to the role I didn’t fully find myself immersed in his performance as I thought I would. So unforgettable in his Oscar-nominated role in Call Me By Your Name, his work here feels like aspiring actor effort instead of fully formed. He hits the notes and looks the part but doesn’t quite deliver from the inside. I have much the same issue with Carrell, though the comedic actor fares better because he’s given a less obvious arc toward ownership of his shortcomings to help his son. Carrell has more moments to shine and work though some of the pain David experienced as he struggles to be a considerate parent to his troubled son but also an attentive father to Nic’s young half siblings.   Ryan and especially Tierney provide strong support as well as the maternal figures in Nic (and, let’s be honest, David’s) life.

It’s Oscar season so it’s not hard to see why Beautiful Boy is being released near the end of the year. It feels like Oscar material that we’re supposed to like because it has so many prestige people involved. It’s a good film and one I’d ultimately recommend, but in several key areas it misses the mark to be something to consider in the “best of” lists critics and audiences are starting to make for themselves.

Movie Review ~ Call Me by Your Name


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In Northern Italy in 1983, seventeen year-old Elio begins a relationship with visiting Oliver, his father’s research assistant, with whom he bonds over his emerging sexuality, their Jewish heritage, and the beguiling Italian landscape.

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  At first glance, it may appear that Call Me by Your Name is a throwback to a simpler and more carefree time.  Sure, the Italian countryside on display in this romantic drama is filmed postcard ready and the means by which the sun waxes and wanes to cast great light on everyone it touches may have you ready to dial your travel agent the moment the credits roll.  People lounge around pools next to their villas, ride bikes into town to grab a drink, and meals are served al fresco with ingredients sourced from local farms.  It’s a beautiful life, to be sure, but there’s an unseen struggle that’s captured here and it makes for one of the most tantalizing movies of 2017.

It’s the summer of 1983 and the Perlman’s have opened up their home to a new graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer, Mirror, Mirror).  Arriving to assist Mr. Perlman, an archaeology professor, Oliver’s Greek god physique and allure has a way of opening more than just doors for him.  That doesn’t seem to matter much to Elio (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) the Perlman’s 17 year old son that has to yield his bedroom to Oliver for the next six weeks and isn’t an initial fan of the older man.  (Random thought: Interesting that Elio’s new room seems just as spacious as his previous one…why couldn’t Oliver just take that one?  Well…anyway).

This is a family of book-smart, talented individuals that have a funny way of not talking about what they’re really feeling.  It’s not a stifling home, though, and Elio’s parents seem understanding and thoughtful.  Feigning disinterest in Oliver but secretly harboring a growing curiosity he can’t explain away, Elio goes about his summer dating a local girl, finding ways to point out how Oliver is perhaps not the perfect specimen people seem to think he is, and giving command performances that show off his innate musical abilities.  Instead of recognizing that he is attracted to Oliver, Elio does what we’ve all done when we like someone but are too afraid to let them know, he acts like a jerk.

Adapted from André Aciman’s novel by Oscar nominee James Ivory, the movie takes its sweet time to get to Oliver and Elio’s eventual union.  It makes for a bit of a tease for the viewer and Chalamet and Hammer have such unique chemistry that by the time Elio steals a furtive kiss on a mid-day excursion you almost feel like standing up and applauding his bold move.  The range of emotions captured after that first toe dip in gay waters is handled so delicately by director Luca Guadagino (A Bigger Splash) and his actors.  They don’t just hop into the sack together, but both take time to think about what this coupling means for themselves and each other.

As the summer days dwindle and the fall approaches, Elio and Oliver’s romance has its ups and downs as both push back against their needs as a way to safeguard their heart.  For the more experienced Oliver, he sees a responsibility to his younger lover to treat him with respect for his new feelings while Elio just wants to drink in as much time with Oliver as he can before he returns to the states.  As the departure day arrives, our stomachs start to twist into knots at the anticipated goodbye that’s sure to wreck us almost as much as it does Elio.

Gay or straight or other, there’s a little bit of something for everyone in Call Me by Your Name.  It’s honest approach to first love and the devastation of it slipping away is summarized perfectly in a final speech from Elio’s dad (Michael Stuhlbarg, The Shape of Water).  Delivered with a painful honesty that shows his ultimate respect and compassion for his son, it is maybe the most transcendent scene I saw in theaters this year.  Everything seemed to fall away (the theater, the audience members, the rest of the screen) and all I saw was his face and heard his voice.  A suberb moment in a magnificent film.

Movie Review ~ Lady Bird

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.

The Silver Bullet ~ Call Me by Your Name

Synopsis: Summer of 1983, Northern Italy. An American-Italian is enamored by an American student who comes to study and live with his family. Together they share an unforgettable summer full of music, food, and romance that will forever change them.

Release Date: November 24, 2017

Thoughts: With a screenplay from James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room with a View) and directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), Call Me by Your Name is a title that could be one to keep your eye on as we transition from the summer slate to the Oscar hopeful season.  Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman and taking place over one gauzy summer in Italy, there are some strong themes of love and self-discovery clearly present in this first trailer.  It’s always interesting to see how a tender story like this will play out for audiences in the wide-release arena, but then again movies like Call My by Your Name aren’t exactly made for mass consumption.  Starring Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), and Timothée Chalamet (Love the Coopers), call me very intrigued with this one.