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.

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FORD V FERRARI (2019)

November 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. 7000 RPM. Racing legend Carroll Shelby describes that as the moment of racing bliss in the opening of the film. We are reminded of early test pilots breaking the sound barrier, or explorers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of history, rivalries, egos, and sport. The racing scenes are exhilarating, and the men are driven by testosterone and compelled to be the best. They are throwbacks to a different era. An era that wasn’t about fairness and feelings, but of determination and focus that produced results – either success or failure. There were winners and losers, and the ceremonies awarded no participation ribbons.

Who are these men? They are Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari. Director James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE) takes the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and turns it into a rivalry between car makers, a friendship between racing icons, a look at corporate buffoonery that still exists today, and an old-fashioned movie that is fun to watch … regardless of whether you know the first thing about racing or cars.

Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the war veteran race driver-turned-designer hired to push Ford racing into world class status. Shelby is an industry icon who won the 1959 Le Mans before retiring due to a heart condition. He then founded and ran Shelby-American for designing and improving cars. He wore cowboy hats that were only eclipsed in size by his bravura in most situations. Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles, another war veteran and bombastic friend of Shelby, who can best be described as a race car savant. Contrary to the film’s title, the story belongs to these two men, and the film belongs to these two actors.

Co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller take some liberties with the script and bend a few historical details to make the parts fit a Hollywood production … but for the most part, the story is pretty accurate. Just a few years after the Edsel fiasco, Henry Ford II is agitated at the state of Ford Motor Company, and after a bitter and personally insulting failed buyout of Ferrari, Mr. Ford (played with proper arrogance by Tracy Letts) decides to engage in motor-measuring with the Italian company run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). He hires Shelby to elevate Ford racing to elite status with one main goal – beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby’s cocksure approach manages to keep Miles onboard despite the internal battles with Ford executives, especially Leo Beebe (a smarmy Josh Lucas). Beebe doesn’t see Miles as “a Ford man”, and in what is all too common in corporate life, prefers style over substance.

The film could have easily been titled Corporate vs Cars. Although the Henry Ford vs Enzo Ferrari segment is quite entertaining, most of the time is spent with Shelby and Miles trying to reach their dream while negotiating corporate obstacles. These two men have a love for racing and each other – in an old school, manly-respect kind of way. They are simpatico in their quest for the perfect car, and as Miles explains to his son (Noah Jupe) in a terrific scene, the perfect lap.

Additional supporting roles include Jon Bernthal as young visionary Lee Iacocca (who died earlier this year), Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ supportive wife, and Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, the lead engineer on Shelby’s team. Of course, Iacocca went on to become Chairman of Chrysler, where he brought in Shelby to consult on the Dodge Viper, among other models. Supposedly Le Mans racing legend and 6-time winner Jackie Ickx appears in a crowd shot, but I missed it.

There is a stark contrast between the Ferrari factory and the Ford assembly line, but the egos at the top are remarkably similar. A bruised ego lit the fuse for the rivalry, but it was the car guys who made it happen. The racing scenes are adrenaline-packed and the sound in the theatre, combined with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SIDEWAYS, NEBRASKA) close-ups inside the car, allow us to feel the rumble and vibration and speed sensation inside the Ford GT40. Damon and Bale are terrific. Damon struts with Shelby’s confidence, and Bale (after a huge weight loss from his role as Dick Cheney in VICE) captures the cantankerous genius of Miles – plus seeing his yell at other drivers during races is hilarious. There is a comical rumble between Miles and Shelby that will remind no one of Batman and Jason Bourne, but as difficult as it is to make popping a clutch exciting on the big screen, Mangold’s team comes through.

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THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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CHRISTINE (2016)

November 3, 2016

christine Greetings again from the darkness. On July 15, 1974, television news reporter Christine Chubbuck read a prepared statement and then committed suicide on-air by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. You may not recognize her name, but you have likely heard the story … it’s no urban legend. Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich offer up a biopic with some insight into Ms. Chubbuck’s personal and professional life so that we might better understand what drove her to such a public and tragic end.

Rebecca Hall takes on the titular role (don’t mistake this for the 1983 John Carpenter/Stephen King film), and despite her usual stilted on screen mannerisms, she delivers what is an emotionally raw and nuanced performance that is the best of her career … and one that keeps us glued to a story of which we already know the ending. We see a woman dedicated to her vision of the profession, while being maddening to those who know her, love her, and work with her. She has an awkward intensity that compounds her lack of social skills and an ongoing struggle with depression. Somehow, Ms. Hall allows us to understand the personal and professional struggles and how things could have spiraled into hopelessness for Christine.

The commentary on the early days of tabloid journalism (“If it bleeds, it leads”) is especially interesting given how the current Presidential campaigns have been covered more than 40 years after the film is set. One might also note the parallels to the character of Howard Beale in Network (1976) … though Christine Chubbuck was less vociferous and never took to yelling “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” while on camera (though she evidently felt that way).

Support work comes from Tracy Letts as the frustrated news director, Michael C Hall as the mixed-signals anchorman on whom Christine has a quiet crush, J. Smith-Cameron as her mother and housemate, Maria Dizzia as her friend and co-worker, and Timothy Simons as the misunderstood and ignored weatherman.

The film clearly makes the point that Christine was a misfit in her work and personal life, and though some of the timeline and known specifics are either re-worked or ignored for artistic purposes, Ms. Hall must be commended for highlighting the effects of depression. Even the best meaning friends and family can unintentionally make things worse. We see a clip of Walter Cronkite’s actual report of her death, and Christine’s own words – “The latest in blood and guts” – were actually ahead of her time.

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INDIGNATION (2016)

August 4, 2016

indignation Greetings again from the darkness. Quite often, Hollywood “period pieces” feel dated and somewhat irrelevant to our world today – as if they were a snapshot from an old magazine. But the best ones transport us to a different era while also serving up themes and characters that are just as interesting and germane today as then … and that’s what we have here.

First time director James Schamus (founder of Focus Features) is an Oscar nominated producer (Brokeback Mountain) and writer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and he tackles the popular 2008 Philip Roth novel … one that the 83 year old novelist admits to being influenced by his own college years. Mr. Roth has been writing novels for more than 50 years and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 “American Pastoral”.

Taking on the lead role of college-bound Marcus Messner is Logan Lerman … an actor who has been on screen since he was 8 years old, and seems to have the eternal youth DNA so sought after by Ponce de Leon. While his looks haven’t changed much since the “Percy Jackson” films or the excellent The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman shines here as the working class Newark Jewish boy, smothered by his parents, and as naïve to the world as he is academically gifted.

It’s 1951 and too many neighborhood boys are arriving back home in pine boxes after serving in the Korean War. Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher and is half of the hyper-cautious parental unit that is alternatively thankful and frightened that their son is avoiding serving in the military by heading off to ultra-conservative (and fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio.

Once on campus, Marcus discovers little of the hoped-for freedom. Mandatory chapel attendance, roommates assigned via religious leanings, and the expectations of joining the Jewish fraternity and hanging out with his own kind combine to be only a different kind of emotional stifling than what he had at home. A series of events serve to shake up Marcus and his beliefs. Date night with his dream girl from the library ends with him being both repulsed and enchanted by a sexually assertive Olivia (Sarah Gadon). An argument with his lughead roommates ends with his being given the worst dorm room on campus. Meeting with the College Dean (Tracy Letts) results in an exhilarating debate that will surely be treasured by all who adore wordplay and oratory sword-fighting. Finally, an emergency appendectomy brings a hospital visit from Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond), and a conversation that drastically alters the course of his life.

The conservative social mores of the 1950’s are on full display, as is the restlessness of the young who would change society forever. Fear would be replaced with daring, and the film does a terrific job of highlighting how revolution often comes at a high price. Bookended by war scenes that dramatize the fine line between civilized society and the brutality of war, it all comes together … bringing more power and poignancy to the two best scenes: as previously mentioned, Letts and Lerman go mano y mano in arguing the brilliance of Bertrand Russell, and their word battle highlights the age-old idealist vs. real world struggles; a mother-son scene towards the end is as heart-breaking as any we’re likely to see on screen this year. Mr. Letts, Ms. Emond and Ms. Gadon all work well with Logan Lerman in order to provide an excellent presentation of Roth’s novel and Schamus’ first film.

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

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