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.

Cold Pursuit

I’m more that two weeks late on this post. Life has gotten in the way of many of my pursuits these days, so it is appropriate that this is the film who’s trail I have let grow cold. If I need to be kept warm in the winter months, I need to see Liam Neeson kill people who deserve to die. It warms my heart to see rough justice since we so often miss true justice in real life.

The set up of the film is not complicated. Neeson’s son is murdered by being given an overdose of heroin. The authorities think he was just another drug user who didn’t know his limits. Neeson’s character’s wife thinks they didn’t know their son at all. It is only as he is about to end his own pain that he discovers what really happened and begins to seek retribution on those responsible. Nels Coxman is not an ex assassin, a CIA agent, or a well trained bodyguard. He is a snowplow driver. His approach is not sophisticated, and the fights are not highly choreographed. He is however methodical and intelligent. Nels simply works his way up the food chain, and fresh fish fall into his lap.

At a certain point in the movie, the deaths start piling up as a consequence of his actions rather than his deliberate execution of offenders. Because his motive is not understood, and the bad guys have no idea why these things are happening, they make assumptions based on their vocation which leads to huge complications. This reminded me a great deal of the 70s films “The Stone Killer” and “The Seven Ups”. Gangland crooks mistake their real enemy and start eating their own.

The nice part about this is that just about every crook who we see get his, earns the death that comes to him. The most effective part of the story other than Neeson is the characterization of the low lives. As each one does something horrible, we just get to start anticipating, “OK, you are next”. The film is based on a Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance”. In the credits, the character names and actors are all listed and the  names vanish in reverse order in listing. It was a clever capstone to the running tally that we have been given during the film.

Laura Dern appears as Nels wife, but she also vanishes from the movie after barely making it into a couple of scenes. The criminals are all the focus in the film. They all have colorful nick names and while the actors are not household names, they add enough personality to make the movie feel worth a watch. William Forsythe shows up as Nels mob connected estranged brother. He provide a little exposition and a satisfying moment with the main villain, but he has only a little to do with the story.

A woman walked out at the end of the movie proclaiming this was the worst movie she’s ever seen, [clearly she has not seen “Vice”]. I did not think it was a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I was entertained…and it kept me warm.

Wild

Forty years ago, as a young man, I hiked many sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. In my scout troop we had a guy who backpacked the entire length of the trail but he did not do it in one fell swoop like Cheryl Strayed did. The accomplishment of such a monumental feat by someone not trained, experienced or wise in the ways of the wilderness is pretty impressive and at the same time completely foolish. Walking into the wild by yourself is an invitation to self reflection, a strong communing with nature and disaster. Watching the event take place for two hours in a comfortable theater at a ripe older age made me nostalgic until the first snowfall encountered.

This is a highly personal story that will strongly appeal to the navel gazers among the cinema going population. It will serve as a travelogue for those who have never been from the depths of the Mojave to the heights of the Sierras and it will depress anyone who has lost a loved one. It will also confuse those of us who lack the personal tragedy gene that would drive someone to wreck their life when a loved one passes unexpectedly. I cannot sit in judgement of a person’s emotional life, everyone is different in the way they cope, but this film left me empty at the experience that drove Cheryl to attempt this trip. I certainly appreciated the flashbacks that accentuated her relationship with her mother, but I was bewildered at how the level headed, bright young woman that she was when her mother is lost, became the bitter, drug addicted victim of serialized promiscuity, forsaking a man that seemed to truly love her. That it happened and that there was a reason for it I do not doubt, I just don’t understand any better as a result of watching this movie.

The story unfolds as Cheryl hikes the 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest trail and thinks back on the life that had brought her to this point. The flashbacks give us detail in the way she grew up and the warm relationship she had with her mother, but they do not clarify the path that lead her to the self destructive behavior in the first place and there is not a very clear reason why she choose this task as a way of closure and repentance. Maybe there is a moment of clarity or an epiphany that brings this sad Minnesota girl to the West Coast and the Sierra Nevada range of mountains, but without a context it felt like an arbitrary odyssey to set out on.  Reese Witherspoon is effective as Cheryl, both in her moments on the trail and in her earlier life. The struggle of the wilderness is however the thing that brings out the most impressive parts of her performance. She plays awkward, fearful and frustrated at various moments. In two sequences you can fathom the possible human dangers that a young woman on a mission like this could face. The dangers from the wilderness get a little bit less attention but she does present a woman struggling with an obsession very clearly.

Laura Dern is the mother who inspires and maddens her. This is the third film I have seen her in during the last year or so. She has the reverse role of a mother losing her child in “The Fault in our Stars” and she is much more grounded and less showy in “When the Game Stands Tall“. As Cheryl’s mother, she shows us in brief moments the kind of love and fortitude that would make her a hero to her daughter. There is also an implied sense that her early life with the abusive father of her children is a source of some of Cheryl’s anger, but Dern never played the mom as a doormat. She was cautious and had limited options but as far as we can tell she ultimately did the right thing by her kids. Some of the film editing might make the performance more meaningful by contrasting the adult Cheryl with her younger self in some places.

wildCheryl encounters a variety of obstacles along her path. Some of those are natural, some man made and many are self inflicted. The people she meets along the way are occasionally interesting but they rarely get much opportunity to sparkle and take focus away from the story we are watching. I suspect that the book delves deeply into some of the philosophies that are represented by the variety of fellow trekkers on her march. I am not at all surprised that the spiritual descendants of hippies are prevalent in the story. Yurt living, Jerry Garcia worshiping, iconoclasts populate some of the outskirts of civilization in the forest. Whether they are free spirits to be admired or outcasts to be puzzled over is not clear from the story. What is clear is that if you can look deeply into a Grateful Dead lyric or jam, or if dead poets and writers are inspiring to you, than you will get more out of this film than the rest of us.