LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 150 years have passed since Louisa May Alcott’s novel was published (volume 1 was published in 1868, volume 2 in 1869). By my count, there have been seven previous movie adaptations, dating back to the silent film era and through the more familiar George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn (1933), Mervyn Leroy-June Allyson (1949), and Gillian Armstrong-Wynona Ryder (1994) versions. One might think that sufficient, yet, after viewing this latest, you’ll likely join me in believing that director Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott (and by natural extension Jo March) are kindred spirits … timeless storytellers of the moment.

Oscar nominated (writing and directing) for her standout LADY BIRD (2017), Ms. Gerwig remains true to the beloved source material while adding her own contemporary touch. She begins with the adult March sisters and then flashing back 7 years to the stage of living together and battling through the difficult and awkward transitional phase. The four sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are exceptionally well cast, and we immediately recognize the familiar personality traits of each. Jo is the serious, determined writer who has an understanding of financial necessities. Meg is the warm facilitator beloved by all. Amy has ambitions (or is it dreams?) of being a great artist and living an exceptional life. Beth, the youngest, radiates a sweet nature and love for the piano.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Jo. Her independent spirit and frustration with how the world is, boils over at times. She states her disappointment at being born a girl, and is described as having “a nature too noble to curb.” While viewing, one must keep in mind that this was the Civil War era (the girls’ father is a military Chaplain), and women had achieved very few rights in society. The contrast is never more evident than when comparing Marmee (Laura Dern), presented here as a near flesh-and-blood saint, with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), one quite at ease in thumbing her nose at societal norms for one reason … she is rich.

Fans of the novel will be pleased that Timothee Chalamet plays “Laurie Laurence”, who struggles every bit as much as the sisters in finding his way towards adulthood. His scenes with Jo are exceptional. Chris Cooper, not seen nearly enough in movies these days, perfectly captures the broken spirit of Mr. Laurence, a man never quite able to escape his own personal loss. Other key cast members include James Norton as tutor/teacher John Brooke, Louis Garrel as Friedrich (here a Frenchman), and Tracy Letts dropping some deadpan comedy as Jo’s publisher Mr Dashwood.

Ms. Gerwig (perhaps with a future as one of the greatest filmmakers) displays storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship at the highest level. She bounces between timelines (over at least 7 years) and different sisters’ stories, showing how each is so different … yet all interconnected. These spirited sisters, raised in the same modest home, have their own independent thoughts and ideas of how they want to live their lives. This delivers multiple comings-of-age and examines ‘a woman’s place’, whatever that means. In fact, the message is that a woman’s place is whatever she decides, and while her options are many (despite obstacles), her decisions are personal. None of the four sisters are played by American actors, and all four perform admirably. Pay particular attention to Florence Pugh (MIDSOMMAR) and her work as Amy. Also impressive is the Production Design by Jess Gonchor and the score by 2-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. This one is all about the storytelling and characters, so take in the bunch known as the March sisters. As a side note, Greta Gerwig’s next movie is a live-action BARBIE movie, with Margot Robbie in the lead.

watch the trailer:


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


THE MUPPETS (2011)

December 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since I recently selected an animated film as my favorite movie of the year (Toy Story 3), it is to be expected that I would make the time to see the first Muppets movie produced in 12 years. Since the driving forces behind this one were Jason Segel and director James Bobin, who was the creator of “Flight of the Conchords”, one of my favorite cult TV shows … I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Although Bret and Jermaine don’t make an appearance (Bret McKenzie did write the hilarious songs), there are still laughs for adults, as well as the expected gags for kids.

 Jason Segel and Amy Adams star, along with Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black and a long list of celebs who I won’t name here … it’s much more fun to spot them as they arrive on screen. The old gang is back, including Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo (now owner of plumbing company Royal Flush), Fozzie Bear (in a casino act), Animal (straight out of Anger Management) and of course, my favorites, Statler and Waldorf.

 There are a couple of tributes to the genius that was Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. You will notice a poster of him outside the studio and a photograph on the wall of Kermit’s office. No real need to go into the story, but I think most will be satisfied not just with the cameos and songs, but also the depth of the story. There is a reason for the Muppets revival, and I am very happy to see the band is back together!

On the downside, there were more than a few times that I felt the filmmakers rushed through in a sloppy manner or were just plain lazy with the script.  There is also a touch of Hollywood left-wing propaganda, as the bad guy is an oil man. Most of the cameos seem more like a flash, and they offered much potential for improvement.  That said, I laughed a few times and the kids in the theatre seemed quite entertained.  So ….. Mahna Mahna

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Muppets fan OR would like to introduce a new generation to the gang and the genius of Jim Henson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to tap into the “kid” side of your personality

watch the trailer:


THE COMPANY MEN

January 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a successful TV writing background (“ER” and “West Wing”), writer/director John Wells tackles the economic downturn in his first feature film. The story offers perspective on how a corporation’s blind focus on profit wins out over employee loyalty when times get tough.

Craig T Nelson stars as James Salinger, who along with Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started the GTX company years ago. The company made its name in ship-making and is now a conglomerate charged with shareholder return despite the economic recession. No mystery how to do that … start cutting employees. Hundreds of them. Get the lawyers involved so the perfect balance of elder statesmen and young guns can be established – gotta avoid those lawsuits!

The initial focus is on Bobby Walker, hotshot salesman played by Ben Affleck. When he gets laid off, his initial reaction is anger followed by denial. While his wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, starts making practical plans on how to get through the crisis, he continues playing golf and driving his Porsche … foolishly believing this makes him look “successful”. He expresses near disgust when his brother-in-law played by Kevin Costner offers him a job on his home remodeling team. Of course, he can’t picture himself “banging nails”.

Next up is self-made man Phil Woodward, played with total annoyance by Chris Cooper. He is the first to realize that the image he had of his value to the company and his family was a total facade, and his reaction is not pretty.

As the film moves forward, we see how the strength of DeWitt’s character not only holds her family together, but also helps her husband realize his self-value is not in his job, but rather with his loved ones … including his parents.

The film is beautifully photographed (Roger Deakins is DP) but really doesn’t offer much other than a reminder that what makes us who we are is really not tied to a title or job description. It’s also an example of how tough times bring out the best and worst in people, and can draw a family much closer … or drive a wedge. Character is revealed when tough choices are forced.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another reason to despise what big business has become OR you just want to laugh at Kevin Costner’s Boston accent

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the many unfortunate ones who have lost their job … you are already living this nightmare.


THE TOWN (2010)

September 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ben Affleck proved himself to be a talented director with Gone Baby Gone. Here, he once again shows he is best suited behind the camera. He has a real feel for setting, scenery, actors and camera angles. Unfortunately, this story based on the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves is just a bit too formulaic to stand out from the crowd.

We are told upfront that the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown has more bank robbers than any other … in fact, in some families it is a proud tradition, passed on to the next generation. Ben Affleck got the guide book from his dad – an incarcerated Chris Cooper who has only one scene, though it’s very dramatic. Affleck’s lifelong pal and crime partner is played by Jeremy Renner. Renner’s character, Jem, is downright psychotic next to the meticulous Affleck’s Mr. Sensitive. If after Hurt Locker you have a difficult time imagining Renner as a bad guy, you should check out North Country. That’s a very bad man.

As seen in the preview, Affleck’s merry band of bank robbers take a hostage played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Affleck, in the course of duty, falls for Hall. She is the light that shows him the way to a better life. The film’s best scene is at a sidewalk cafe where Renner suprises Affleck and Hall with a visit.  The scene dramatizes just how delicate the line is for Affleck between his old life and the new one he dreams of.  Unfortunately, that story line leads us right back to more crime … with FBI mad man Jon Hamm hot on the heals of the local bad boys.

The neighborhood crime lord, played superbly by Pete Postlethwaite, controls the every move of the gang and takes his “fair” share while leading through intimidation – all while trimming roses! Renner’s sister and Affleck’s previous squeeze is played alarmingly (and surprisingly) well by Blake Lively. She appears to have a nice little career ahead of her.

The frustrating thing with this film is that we have seen it all before, just without the heavy bean-town accents. Tons of automatic weaponry lead to very few actual injuries or deaths – always the sign of a cheesy shootout. The finale for Renner, Hall and Affleck are all advertised well in advance of the actual occurrence, which pretty much ends the suspense. On the bright side, the film is well made and entertaining enough. For a much better film on the culture of local/family crime check out this year’s Animal Kingdom.  Here is my review of that film: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/animal-kingdom/

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you grew up in a rough neighborhood within a large city OR you want a peek at the bowels of Fenway Park.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think everyone should speak with the flowery cadence of Cary Grant OR you believe automatic weaponry is actually dangerous