Little Women (2019)

For forty years, I have gone to a movie on Christmas day with my family. Some of those choices were terrific ways to spend a family holiday, including “Galaxy Quest”, “Dream Girls”, and “The Greatest Showman”. Other choices were dismal failures that we had hoped would be good but were in fact sad failures; “Toys” and “First Family” being the biggest let downs. Occasionally we made a left field choice, a film we wanted to see but was not exactly holiday fare, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Hateful Eight” come to mind, not exactly heartwarming.

In 1994, our first year in the new house, I took my seven and five year old daughters to see “Little Women” starring Winnona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. It was a very fond memory and it stood as a pretty definitive version of the film as far as I was concerned. I was not particularly excited about this new version, even when I knew that it would feature Saoise Ronan and be directed by Greta Gerwig. Although I admired their previous collaboration, “Lady Bird”, I was not blown away by it the way so many others were. I saw a few flaws and it probably did not quite resonate with me because of my age and gender. Well none of that effected me with this adaption of the Louisa May Alcott novel, this is a luminous telling of the story that is flawlessly performed, very well written, and may be the most beautiful film you see this year.

I must shamefully acknowledge that I have never read the original novel, in spite of the fact that my wife identified it as her favorite book when she was younger.  As a consequence of this oversight I can’t say for certain how faithful to the book the story is, but it certainly feels authentic. The one minor criticism I have of the screenplay and direction is the non-linear approach to the material. It is structured as a series of scenes, some of which flash back seven years and some which are contemporary to the setting after the Civil War. The ages of the actresses in the main roles are such that they can pass for teens or twenties , but we don’t always know which period we are in. A haircut helps in a couple of places, but a few times it took several moments for me to be able to contextualize what was happening on the screen at that moment.

The strongest addition to the film as told by Gerwig, the screenwriter as well as director, is the detail in the lives of two of the sisters who were often overlooked in earlier versions. Actress Florence Pugh infuses Amy March with more personality than any of the other versions, and the script shows her at both her worst and best. She is loathsome as a vindictive little sister who takes revenge on her sisters creative efforts but she is noble when it comes to choosing a husband and redeeming a character she has herself condemned. Emma Watson as Meg March also makes what is often a cardboard role into an important part of the narrative. Eliza Scanlen is heartbreaking as the sister with the darkest story resolution, but regardless of those characters, it is still a story about Jo. Saoise Ronan is front and center even when she is not on screen. Her frustrating petulance is matched by the frustrating limitations placed on a young woman of the time. You can choose to see this as a feminist screed but that is a mistake, this is a pretty accurate portrayal of a woman’s life in the mid 19th century of the U.S. Ronan manages to be fierce so often that it is a shock when she is so effective as pitiful and desperate in a confessional moment with her on-screen mother played by Laura Dern.

Some attention to the technical production should also be made. The set design is realistic and detailed. The selection of locations feels authentic and the world that the women occupy, even in a place that is hard to replicate like New York in 1865, is convincing. The number of extras in a scene, the mix of roads that are paved and unpaved and the signage on the stores will pass very critical inspection.

There are a variety of supporting players, such as Chris Cooper (my second film of his within a week) and Meryl Streep. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie was presented in the least sympathetic way I have seen in the four screen adaptions I will have on the podcast, but he does have a nicely executed scene of personal despair when he is rejected by Jo as husband material.

Maybe the one other criticism I have of the screenplay is the way the resolution is presented as a hypothetical writer’s plot device rather than an authentic romantic climax. It plays out on the screen nicely, but it does seem to be tampering with the story for modern reasons rather than fidelity to the work. (Again, that may be inaccurate since I have not read the book).

“Little Women comes at the end of the year for the usual reason, it is a prestige picture that is hoping fpr awards attention to enhance it’s potential box office and audience response. This is a strategy that should work. The theater was packed, there was a smattering of applause at the end, but more than that, I think I will be with the majority of critics who see this as one of the best films of 2019.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

There is a world full of film bloggers who dislike the whole idea of live action remakes or reboots of classic animation films. They regularly let it be known that there is no need for a live action film, that the existing version is excellent and, “gasp”, the production of such a movie is a money grab. Well those are all ideas that I can sometimes understand, they often get bandied about without regard to the product for which those comments are intended. I try to hold my opinion until I see each film and I do my best to judge it by it’s own merits. That goal is exceptionally hard to achieve with the current “Beauty and the Beast”. The animated film from 1991 is beloved by many, and I include myself in that group. It holds a pivotal place in my nostalgia file, since my kids were the perfect ages to see that film when it came out and we lived on a steady diet of “B & B” video watches for almost five years. Although I try to avoid other reviews and certainly spoilers on line, it is hard to exclude them entirely, and I’d heard one of the regular guests on the Lambcast, knock this version for being lifeless. So although I wanted this film to be a success, it was with some slight trepidation that I approached the screening. To put it mildly, there is nothing to worry about, this film is solid.

 

The legend of the original animated design of Belle was that they wanted her to resemble Julia Roberts. I think we can dispense with that image. Emma Watson is a fantastic fit as the heroine of this story. She has the pluckiness that we want out proto-feminist character to deliver and the charm that we remember. I think her voice is very solid as a singer and the big numbers at the beginning of the movie are carried off with aplomb. She also seemed to develop some chemistry with the Beast, through hard work as an actor in some pretty well filled out sections of the film. The transformation from antagonist to friend and love interest was very believable in this version of the movie. I also thought her relationship with her father was more adult like and based in a long standing status rather than just being patronizing.

There are places in the film where there are additions to the well known story that I think work, but there are also a couple that seem unnecessary. I don’t know that the enchantress that places a spell on the castle and town, needs to be a character after the first sequence. I did like the fact that the town was included in the enchantment, which helps to explain a couple of minor inconsistencies in the ’91 animated film. The character of LeFou changes in a couple of ways. Much has been made of the character’s “identification”, and those that are bothered by that sort of thing will probably ind the slight bit of humor related to that offensive. I wonder if that alteration is the justification for turning the character into a more sympathetic figure toward the end of the film. As if an orientation transplant also requires a morality defense. It’s just a thought I had as I was considering the whole film. It doesn’t qualify or disqualify the movie for me.

 

Here and there are minor changes in scene and blocking. Gaston, as played very effectively by Luke Evans, is introduced in much the same manner but already as a suitor for Belle, in fact she has turned him down before. Their interactions have less of the comic effect than the animated film was able to achieve, and that is a small drawback, but the back story of Gaston as a soldier  makes some of his attitudes a little more sensible. His temper issue, which replaces the blackmail into marriage strategy of the animated version, is a lot more logical and it also justifies LeFou a bit more.  Another set of background issues concerns Maurice, Belle’s Father played by Kevin Kline. Instead of being an inventor, he is an artist, and some of his work is mechanical like clock making. I suppose it makes sense to enlarge the part if you are going to expand the film and hire an actor of this stature, but I don’t know that we needed to know all the history of their departure from Paris to the provincial areas.

The Beast himself, is seen early on as an adult, although they disguise his appearance a little for the reveal at the end. This was another place where the story gets expanded. It seems the young Prince, when denied maternal oversight became a reflection of his father. Not much was told to us about all of that, but because we get a little more of his origins, the library becomes more important as a way of connecting Belle and he. One of the minor criticisms of the animated film is the quick step to love that occurs. I think this is a little more realistic in timing, although it still happens faster than one might expect.

I may be an outlier on this film. On the podcast that I was a guest on today, two of the other participants were quite harsh in their judgments and the other was mildly enthusiastic. I’m all in, so take that for what it is worth. If you are interested in hearing the discussion, I will be posting a link when the podcast gets published. Until then, you are invited to be my guest, and enjoy this tale as old as time, without worrying that all those little people in the provincial town you find yourself in, will judge you too harshly.