REVIEW: “Little Women” (2019)

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Louisa May Alcott’s original two-volume classic “Little Women” has been adapted multiple times for stage and television as a drama, a musical, and even an animated series. When it comes to the big screen the story of the four March sisters has been adapted a total of eight times over the last 100 years starting with a 1917 silent version all the way to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 refresh.

Gerwig writes and directs this coming-of-age family drama that has all the energy, personality and period appeal you would expect from Alcott’s story. She fills her movie with an absolutely stellar cast while also working with some fabulous talent behind the camera. French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, production designer Jess Gonchor, the brilliant composer Alexandre Desplat, and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran all work with Gerwig to create a vibrant, lived-in 1860’s New England.

Emma Watson (Finalized);Eliza Scanlen (Finalized);Florence Pugh (Finalized);Saoirse Ronan (Finalized)

As lovers of the story know, the film follows the March sisters growing up outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the principle character, a fiery free-spirit known for her stubbornness. Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest and most level-headed sister. Amy (Florence Pugh) is an immensely talented painter, brutally honest and bratty but with a pinch of humor. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is gentle, unassuming and a remarkably good piano player.

The relationships between the sisters are spirited, playful, sometimes competitive but always loving. Gerwig nicely taps into each girl’s unique individuality, highlighting their strengths and flaws. Most importantly none of the girls ever get lost in the shuffle or feel shortchanged. Gerwig’s affection for Alcott’s novel and more importantly these characters is clearly seen in ever frame. And while Jo may be the film’s lead, Gerwig treats all the sisters as equals.

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It helps to have such sparkling chemistry between actresses. Ronan (so good in Gerwig’s previous film “Lady Bird”) leads the way, capturing every ounce of Jo’s blazing independence and creative ambition. She’s a veritable whirlwind of attitude, determination, and feminine grit. Watson gets her best role in years and Scanlen exudes earnestness with every tender glance. But it’s Pugh who could be the standout. Her management of Amy’s many layers is superb and she clearly understands her character who goes from vindictive snoot to a sure-footed pragmatist who understands what it means to be a woman in 1860’s America. Pugh is nothing short of brilliant.

And I have to mention the supporting cast who fill out Gerwig’s world yet never feel like filler. Most obvious is Timothée Chalamet who plays Laurie, the wealthy boy next door who becomes a fixture among the March girls. He’s charming but impulsive and often flies by the seat of his pants. Laura Dern is fabulous as the girl’s saintly mother Marmee and Meryl Streep pops up as their sickly looking curmudgeon of an aunt. And a muttonchopped Tracy Letts is a hoot playing a patronizing publisher who epitomizes the era’s archaic societal rules for women. At one point he tells Jo to make her stories “short and spicy. And if the main character is a girl make sure she’s married by the end.”

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Throughout “Little Women” we see numerous touches that highlights the modern day relevance of the story. Alcott’s book always had a forward-thinking bend and you can tell it left an impression on Gerwig. The biggest divergence from the book is in the non-linear storytelling. Gerwig’s script bounces between two timelines set seven years apart. One of my lone complaints is that picking up on the time jumps can be a challenge at least until you get in sync with it. But it does allow Gerwig to do some really interesting things with the narrative such as shifting emphasis and shedding new lights on certain characters.

As a “Little Women” novice I can’t speak to how Greta Gerwig’s version measures up to other adaptations. I can’t pick out every difference from Alcott’s classic. But I do know this is a truly great movie filled with an effervescent female spirit that celebrates the joy of family and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Gerwig directs with such vision and confidence and her script takes an all-time classic story and makes it feel fresh and new. The film also features a magnificent ensemble cast. Put it all together and you have one of the true delights of 2019.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Life” (2017)

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Fans of “Alien” are sure to find similarities in “Life”, an unapologetic knock-off of the Ridley Scott classic. A big name cast faces off against a deadly alien creature in the claustrophobic confines of their space station/ship. Sounds familiar, right? Yet despite wearing its influence where everyone can see it, “Life” succeeds thanks  to some good characters, even better tension, and an ending that lands perfectly.

“Life” is Director Daniel Espinosa’s follow-up to his 2014 film “Child 44” (an underrated film on its own right). As you can imagine, this is a considerably different movie. It may follow familiar footsteps, but Espinosa doesn’t give you much time to think about that. He keeps the pacing crisp and the story is constantly moving forward. He also manages to create some great images despite a pretty modest budget. Some of them hearken to Cuarón’s “Gravity” while others the aforementioned “Alien”.

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The writing team of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take a welcomed detour from their mind-melting “Deadpool” model. It may not be the most original script but it serves up some fun science-fiction horror. It takes place on the orbiting International Space Station where the crew (with a global flavor) awaits the arrival of a probe from Mars. After a rocky docking the crew recovers soil samples and immediately begins testing.

The chief science officer Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a rapid-growing, multi-celled organism predominately made up of brains and muscle. Back home, school kids win a contest to pick the creature’s name. The choose “Calvin”. It begins as a microscopic life form but a couple of mishaps and several added pounds later and Calvin is out of his petri dish hunting the crew through the ISS.

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A solid cast round out the ISS team. Rebecca Ferguson is the quarantine officer, Jake Gyllenhaal is the medical officer, Ryan Reynolds and Hiroyuki Sanada are engineers, and Olga Dihovichnaya plays the station commander. Reese and Wernick handle the characters well, giving each just enough attention to make them more than generic bloody fodder for the creature.

“Calvin doesn’t hate us. But he has to kill us in order to survive.” It’s a good line from Hugh that offers some interesting food for thought. Other than that “Life” doesn’t require much thinking. I’m sure some of its logic could be picked apart if you’re into that kind of thing, but I enjoyed it as a taut, white-knuckle space thriller that looks great and absolutely nails it’s ending. That’s enough for me.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “The Lighthouse”

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Robert Eggers grabbed a lot of well-deserved attention for his 2015 period horror film “The Witch”. It was his feature film debut and it instantly revealed his impressive knack for historical detail and slow-boiling tension. Like so many I was drawn to the dark tone and growing sense of unease. But he also exhibited a stunning visual craft that was essential to the film’s effectiveness. “The Witch” left many of us wondering what Eggers would do next.

His followup turns out to be just as unique and original. “The Lighthouse” is an interesting slice of psychological horror that aesthetically could have been plucked straight from the late 1930s. It’s a cerebral dive into paranoia and insanity with two lighthouse keepers serving as our avatars. The story is light but the characters and the performances that drive them are the highlight. Unfortunately they can only carry it so far.

Set in the late 19th century, the film opens with the first of many stunning shots – a sublime mix of sound and visual as a tugboat penetrates the fog on the rough and tumble New England seas. Onboard is a greenhorn named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who’s to be dropped off on a remote island for some contract work. He’ll spend the next four weeks working under an old surly seadog named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) who tends to the island’s lighthouse.

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From the very first moments we see the same management of atmosphere and mood that made “The Witch” such a good film. This time Eggers shoots on gorgeously grainy 35mm and with a boxed-in 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This not only makes the film look as though it was made decades ago, but it keeps our focus tight and adds a suffocating claustrophobic sense throughout. And the cinematography and sound design work hand-in-hand to create and maintain a steady foreboding tone.

It also helps that Dafoe and Pattinson are such perfect fits for this dark, dank world. With their grizzled faces, wearied eyes, suspicious demeanors – both give stand-out performances and essentially carry the bulk of the film’s weight on their shoulders. But regardless of how great the film looks or how stellar the two lead performances are, the script (co-written by Eggers and his brother Max) is too bare and eventually the fits of drunkenness and madness, wacky hallucinations and endless yelling grows old.

Don’t misunderstand, I have no doubts Eggers intends there to be meaning behind most of what he gives us. He does some compelling things with his setting, personal demons resurface, even hints of mythology are scattered about. He clearly wants us to put together the psychological puzzle he’s laying out before us. But there needs to be a hook – something that grabs and engages me enough to want to think things through.

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The story hints at making a shift after Winslow breaks a cardinal seaman’s rule which possibly triggers a huge storm which pummels the island. But in no time we’re back to scenes that feel like repeats of ones we’ve seen several times before. Gleaning new bits of information from the repetition becomes a frustrating chore. This lasts a while and it isn’t until the final ten minutes that we get what could be considered meaningful progression.

And perhaps most surprising to me is the lack of mystery and suspense. Sure, there are a few questions we wonder about: What is Wake hiding in the locked-up lantern room of the lighthouse? Is the island supernatural? What secrets from their past are these two men hiding? But there rarely seems to be a satisfying path to finding answers. And I found none of it particularly scary. Throwing in an occasional grisly image or weird scenes of pent-up sexual frustration doesn’t do the trick. So we’re left with occasional bursts of the ominous score or the haunting sounds from around the island. Both are great, but hardly enough to sustain any sense of horror.

“The Lighthouse” ends up being a disappointing exercise. I worked really hard to like this movie, overlooking my frustrations and pushing forward for something more than the beautiful B&W visuals and intensely committed performances. But I never found it, at least not enough of it to keep me connected. And it’s such a shame, because I usually really go for movies like this. Sadly, not this time.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Laundromat” (2019)

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The secret life of money“, a phrase uttered early into Steven Soderbergh’s new film, would have made a great title for a movie based on the infamous Panama Papers leak of 2016. Instead the indie filmmaking stalwart went with “The Laundromat”, a peculiar title for a rather peculiar movie.

For those who don’t know The Panama Papers refers to the over 11 million documents leaked by an anonymous source who still to this day is only known as “John Doe”. The documents were swiped from the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca & Co. and contained the shady wheelings and dealings of their extremely wealthy clientele. They revealed that Mossack Fonseca was managing thousands of offshore shell corporations making it easy for millionaires and billionaires from all over the globe to hide money and avoid taxes (among other things).

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To varying degrees of success 2015’s “The Big Short” showed you could make financial mumbo-jumbo entertaining and even kinda funny. Soderbergh taps into that with “The Laundromat” but with a much quirkier and even more playful approach. It may not be as scalding as some bloodthirsty viewers would like, but it pulls no punches throughout its off-beat mixture of reality and absurdity.

Right out of the gate we’re introduced to one of the film’s more outlandish angles. Our guides are none other than Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). Dressed to the nines and bouncing from one absurdly luxurious backdrop to another, the garish pair break the fourth wall in walking us through their version of how the system works. Completely ludicrous but really funny.

Our most human connection comes through Ellen Martin (played by Meryl Streep) who loses her husband Joe (James Cromwell) in a tour boat accident in Lake George, New York. The boat company’s owners (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) are stunned to find their insurance policy was issued through a string of non-existent companies operated by a crooked Caribbean broker (Jeffrey Wright). Needless to say it means a much smaller insurance settlement than Ellen was initially promised.

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Soderbergh and his writer/frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns use Ellen’s tragedy as a launching point for their loosely wound black comedy/bio-drama. It jumps wildly from one vignette to the next with Mossack and Fonseca occasionally breaking in to introduce a new segment from their own colorful perspective. One features Matthias Schoenaerts and Rosiland Chao doing some shell company jockeying in China. Another sees Nonso Anozie playing a louse of a father who uses his wealth to scam his wife and daughter.

It may sound like a confusing mess and to be honest it kind of is. But you could say that’s the point. It’s a mirror image of the tangled, corrupt maze of shady unregulated money management. Does that make for good entertainment? I actually had more fun with “The Laundromat” than “The Big Short” (which it is inescapably being compared to). Some will say it’s not angry enough (despite its clever but pummeling ending) and other are sure to find it too spasmodic and scattershot. I was surprised at how much I went for it, but not a bit surprised to hear others have not.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Light of My Life” (2019)

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I’m always drawn to movies that highlight fathers and daughters and explore the dynamics that often define their relationships. You can probably guess why, but movies that do it well really speak to me. Last year it was Debra Granik’s brilliant “Leave No Trace”. This year Casey Affleck’s “Light of My Life” strikes many of the same powerful chords.

Affleck directs, writes, co-produces, and stars in this slow-brewing but intimate survival drama. It uses some of the same elements found in Granik’s film and laces them with the dystopian flavor of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It’s a compelling stew, but at its core it’s still a story about a dad named Caleb (Affleck) and his daughter Rag (played by impressive newcomer Anna Pniowsky).

The story takes place a decade after a devastating plague has wiped out almost all of the world’s female population. Included among the casualties is Caleb’s wife and Rag’s mom (played in a handful of flashbacks by Elisabeth Moss). Affleck paints a bleak portrait of a world without women. It’s dark, ugly, and on the brink of total collapse.

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In one scene Caleb explains the crumbling world as being unbalanced. An inquisitive Rags asks “When will it be balanced?” Her father can only respond “When there are more women.” It’s all he knows to say. He’s being honest while trying to offer his daughter a glimmer of hope. At the same time he knows the outlook is grim and there is no guarantee that the world will ever be the same again.

Caleb and Rag live along the outskirts of this shell of civilization. Rag’s hair is kept short and she dresses as a boy in order to keep safe. The reasons why are both obvious and ominous, bringing a heightened level of tension and suspicion to every encounter. Affleck’s fierce development of atmosphere and mood causes us to question the motives and intents of every person they meet.

The setting is undeniably dour, but Affleck’s interests are considerably more intimate. As the movie’s title implies, it’s a story about paternal love, the anxieties of parenting, and growing up in unforgiving circumstances. The film tosses aside practically every modern convention and puts an extraordinary amount of time into its two main characters. Take the opening scene where Caleb lays next to Rag telling her a version of Noah’s Ark. It’s a gutsy long take featuring a static camera locked on Affleck and Pniowsky. It may go a hair too long but it’s still an ambitious character-focused approach.

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Elsewhere we get heart-to-heart conversations about mortality, the state of the world, and the difference between morals and ethics. We even get a lighthearted dinner table scene where Caleb awkwardly attempts to cover everything from racism to…(you know)…’THE talk’ all in one uncomfortable sitting. It’s a tender and welcomed moment of levity that shines a light On the fantastic chemistry between Affleck and Pniowsky.

But then you have the film’s dark side vividly seen in its sketch of a male-dominated society. Aside from being a potent metaphor, Affleck’s grim milieu and its undercurrent of savagery makes for some harrowing sequences. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw coats his images in blues, whites, and grays while shooting in a way that highlights the emptiness of the landscapes. And when we do get glimpses of approaching men in the distance it can be genuinely frightening.

At the end of Caleb’s Noah’s Ark story Rag challenges her father “You said it would be about the girl, why do you keep talking about the boy? You can’t miss the subtle indictment in light of how male-centered our perspectives can be. And considering this is a movie about a father driven to shield his daughter from aggressive men, you can’t help but wonder if this is Affleck dealing with his past transgressions. It’s hard to say, but the film’s message is forceful, its approach is thoughtful, and its storytelling is raw and unflinching. It’s sure to be too slow for some and too gloomy for others. I fell in with its rhythm and found plenty of heart to light a path through the darkness.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Life Itself” (2018)

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Navigating through the haze that is “Life Itself” isn’t the most pleasurable experience. But this wasn’t totally unexpected. Writer/Director Dan Fogelman’s quasi-meditation on life and death has been widely panned by critics appearing on more than one ‘Worst of’ list last year. But when movies sport such an intriguing cast I like to give them a chance.

Unfortunately “Life Itself” gives you cause for concern right out of the gate. It starts with an off-putting opening sequence featuring truly cringe-worthy narration from Samuel L. Jackson (who must have been told to milk every drop out of his Samuel L. persona). It’s meant to serve as an introduction to the first of five chapters all connected by one traumatic event.

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Chapter one focuses on a deeply depressed and lonely New Yorker named Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac). Through flashbacks on top of flashbacks we learn of his past relationship with the free-spirited Abby (Olivia Wilde). Fogelman attempts to put us in Will’s head as he constructs stories in his mind that we must sift through to find the truth.

Most of our clarity comes from a messy series of sessions Will has with his therapist (Annette Bening). These scenes range from exposition-soaked chats to weird trips back in time where the two resemble ghosts from Christmas past. Isaac and Bening give it their best and they’re clearly better than the material they are working with. Isaac works especially hard trying to add emotional depth and nuance to his character. He can only do so much.

The narrative leapfrogs back-and-forth across the timeline before finally getting to the key incident and the ripple effect it has across the remaining chapters. Each chapter attempts to tell a different person’s story yet the connections between them are glaringly obvious. But it some cases it takes time to come into focus. Take when the story suddenly shifts from the Big Apple to the countryside of Spain.

Here we have Vincent (Antonio Banderas, again a good performance despite the material) who grows olives on a patch of land he owns. He promotes the quiet but hardworking Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to foreman. Now with a means of support, Javier marries his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa) and they have a son. Like the New York storyline, this one hops through time, shifts its focus and reveals its connection to what we’ve seen already.

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If all of this sounds too hard to follow, don’t worry. Fogelman spells it all out to us. Every detail, every emotion, you name it. Any question you might have is probably answered in an on-the-nose flashback or montage. We are given no room to wrestle with these characters or come to our own conclusions about them. This seems like an example of a filmmaker not trusting his audience to understand his movie.

It’s odd that a film filled with this much sorrow, longing, heartache, and loss can leave you so emotionally numb. Perhaps if it didn’t hold our hand the entire time. Maybe if it weren’t so sloppy in its execution. It’s funny, the ending seems perfectly fitting – a facepalm worthy finish that’s telegraphed from miles away. On one hand I want to give credit to Fogelman for having a unique concept and interesting vision. On the other I’m reminded of how poorly it all comes together and no amount of time leaps or Bob Dylan references can save it.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars