[REVIEW] ‘Little Women’ and is 1 Amy Better than 2?

little women2.jpg

If you have been following my writing for any amount of time you know I am a huge fan of Little Women, both novel and many film adaptations. In fact, it was the first big book I was proud of reading and finishing. I remember relating to all 4 March sisters and crying when Beth died and hoping I could be wild and independent just like Jo. It’s the best!

Unfortunately the film versions have been more than a little disappointing lately with a weak adaptation from PBS and a terrible modern adaptation at the theaters last year. So as you can imagine I approached this new version by director Greta Gerwig with a mixture of excitement and fear. Fortunately, for the most part, I enjoyed it and definitely recommend it for families during this Christmas season.

Pros

There are many strengths to this new version of Little Women. To begin with, most of the casting is strong. I especially liked Saoirse Ronan (who I’ve loved ever since Brooklyn) as Jo. She brought the independent spirit while keeping the character easy to relate with and likable. I also enjoyed Emma Watson as Meg and admire her for taking a small part in an ensemble film when she certainly could demand more.

Laura Dern is also strong as Marmee and Meryl Streep is fun as the crotchety Aunt March (although it’s weird for me to think of Meryl as so old!). Chris Cooper also puts in nice work as Mr Lawrence and Timothy Chalamet is a decent Laurie (a very difficult role to cast because you can’t make him too charming or you are mad at Jo nor too nerdy or there’s no romantic tension. It’s tough).

For the most part the big beats of the story are done well and I particularly think Jo and Laurie shippers will like the choices made. The film also looks beautiful with lovely period details in locations and costumes.

Mixed

The mixed aspects of LittleWomen mostly come from 2 areas. The first is the non-linear storytelling. Normally I am not a fan of this narrative choice as I think it breaks up any momentum the characters have (Man of Steel…) and I feel some of that here. However, because you see Amy and Laurie together very early on it makes the transition from him and Jo, to him and Amy, a lot more believable and effortless.

little-women-1

The other problem is the decision to cast 1 actress to play Amy instead of 2 like they did in the 1994 film. Although not as absurd as the 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, 23 year old Florence Pugh looks weird trying to play a 12 year old. This awkwardness is enhanced by the non-linear storytelling where you are flipped around from young and older versions of the character while the actress looks the same at all ages. Florence Pugh is fine in the role but I just think they should have cast 2 for the character like they did in the 1994 version.

Cons

There aren’t many outright cons for this version of Little Women; however, I have a couple. The first one is I wasn’t crazy about Eliza Scanlen as Beth. Claire Daines is so much better in the 1994 version, and I think the non-linear storytelling hurt our connection to Beth and the mounting tension and stress on her family her illness brings the most.

I also thought the final scenes with Jo were a little too cute and overtly modern for my taste. The character is a classic example of the independent female archetype. She does not need extra scenes with her being snarky or clever to prove the point.

Other than that I enjoyed Little Women. I hope it will inspire a new crop of young girls to read the book and hopefully appreciate their families more each day.

When you get to see this version please let me know what you think.

7 out of 10

smile worthy

Advertisements

[REVIEW] ‘Waves’ and the American Family Forgives

When I sit down to watch an arthouse film like Trey Edward Shults’ new movie Waves I have to prepare myself for something abstract where visuals are more important than narrative. Sometimes these movies work for me (Knight of Cups, A Ghost Story) and sometimes they don’t (If Beale Street Could Talk, The Souvenir). With Waves it mostly worked for me but I much prefer the second part of the story over the first part. Let me explain:

waves2

Waves tells the story of an African- American family of 4 in Miami, Florida who seem to be living the dream life at first but as we dive in we see a ton of hurt and problems. The first half of the movie tells the tragic downfall of the oldest son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison). His dream is to get a scholarship wrestling but he has an injury  in his shoulder he is hiding from his family and coach. He also has a girlfriend who just might be pregnant. As the problems mount up Tyler’s world starts swirling around him until he loses control.

My problem with Tyler’s story is I felt it was very predictable. The styling is beautiful but how many movies have we seen with the overbearing father (Sterling K Brown) and the teen rebelling. It was beautiful but was too reliant on archetypes to move me the way it wanted to.

waves3

Then we get into part 2 which focuses on the second child Emily (Taylor Russell). The reason why her story moved me is she has a more unique conflict. I haven’t seen many movies with teenagers who have to forgive their siblings (and others) for the pain and hurt they feel. That struggle was much more interesting to see play out. Also the other characters became less archetypal and more like real people. I particularly loved a little scene between Emily and her Dad as they fish and have an open and honest conversation about their pain and anger.

Emily begins a relationship with schoolmate Luke (Lucas Hedges who I always love) and he has his own demons with his father and his own struggle to forgive. This was much easier to relate to than Tyler’s journey and felt more emotionally true. I kind of wish we could get a sequel because they had incredible chemistry and I bought into their romance completely.

COURTESY_WAVES_Youth-5-1-PULP

Director Trey Edward Shults makes strong choices that could be gimmicks but for the most part worked for me. The spinning shots got a little nauseating but the colors and use of music helped draw me into the story and give the movie its own identity.

All that said, it’s the message of the movie that makes it stand out. Waves is not only a story about a broken family but how they learn to forgive each other and heal from their wounds. It moved me and I definitely recommend giving this film a shot.

8 out of 10

smile worthy

 

Blind Spot 47: ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

As you all know I have been heavily ensconced in the Christmas movie watching season in the month of November. Believe it or not I have watched 60 new Christmas movies from 2019 alone! This is why I almost didn’t get my Blind Spot pick in this month. There’s only so much time!

Fortunately I found time to watch the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and not only was it a welcome change of pace but an excellent film. I can see why it is heralded as one of the great films of the Western genre.

From my admittedly limited experience it seems like there are 2 brands of Western films:

1. There are the sprawling films with cowboys on horses fighting Indians and claiming territory like The Searchers or Dances with Wolves.

2. Or there are the films that show off the isolated, lawless nature of the West. Usually these are set in town rather than on the open prairie. Examples include The Magnificent 7 or High Noon.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely of the latter variety. I was actually shocked at how violent it is. I can sometimes be guilty of putting movies from the 50s in a squeaky clean box when that is certainly not always the case. Evidently they are going to be making a remake soon, which without question will be rated R if it is accurate to the original film at all. I didn’t mind the violence. It just surprised me.

liberty-valance-alternate

The thrust of the violence comes from the outlaw listed in the title: Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin in a really cold and calculated performance. This is a true outlaw with no feeling for anyone who comes in his way. Marvin does not play Liberty as an outlaw with a heart of gold like Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not at all. He is a man who will kill you over a steak dinner and not give it a second thought.

Naturally everyone is terrified of Liberty including the useless Marshall named Link Appleyard (Andy Devine). The only exception is cowboy Tom Doniphon played with huge charisma by John Wayne. He picks his battles with Liberty but is not afraid to challenge him especially when he gets in his way (or messes with his steak!).

liberty-valance-social

Into all this mess comes an idealistic lawyer named Ransom Stoddard played by Jimmy Stewart. Talk about perfect casting! Director John Ford uses the innocence and every-man appeal of Stewart to his full advantage. There is never a moment where we aren’t rooting for him or wanting him to defeat Liberty or his  gang. And to the movies credit it is not an easy path for Ransom. The people are so afraid of Liberty he is often left standing against him alone.

The problem is Ransom believes he can solve things peacefully with Liberty and not resort to violence. This creates the central conflict of the film: Is the law abiding attorney going to give into the wild ways of the west or will his pure ideals prevail? It’s an interesting question and it plays out with a compelling script and excellent filmmaking.

You might be saying to yourself ‘I hate Westerns and have no interest in seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. And I’d reply I am also not a big fan of the genre but the whole point of the blind spot project is to get out of my niches and try new things. I honestly think if you give this film a shot you will be impressed by the interesting characters, story, messaging and pacing. It is a classic for a reason and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence? What did you think and who would you cast in the remake? Who can fill the shoes of John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart? It’s a tall order!

9 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

[REVIEW] ‘The Irishman’: Leave the Movie Take the Ingredients (Spoiler Free)

Every once in a while there comes along a movie where it seems like dissension or diversity of opinion is not allowed. You either have to like or hate it or you are not worthy of being called a true aficionado of film. This is how I felt going into the new film from Martin Scorsese, The Irishman. I was told it is a masterpiece (a word that has lost all meaning from over-use these days) and it is destined to win best picture at the Oscars. This may be the case, but unfortunately I walked away from the screening with very mixed feelings. I will do my best to explain why.

irishman2

Let’s start out talking about the positives. First, the performances are outstanding. Of course, Robert Deniro as the lead character Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino as famous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa are the standouts. However, there is also a lot of exemplary supporting work: Joe Pesci is excellent as Russell Bufalino. Ray Ramano is wonderful as mob attorney Bill Bufalino. The list could go on for days.

The Irishman is also wonderfully produced with beautiful period details from costumes, hair and makeup, to production design. As it’s a very long movie at 209 minutes these details helped immerse you thoroughly into in the story. I also think the de-aging technology is flawless. You forget Robert Deniro is 76 years old in the flashback scenes! There is no sense of uncanny valley or weirdness we’ve seen in other attempts such as in the last Pirates of the Caribbean film.

irishman4

All of these positive aspects left me wrestling with my score for The Irishman. Unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the story and characters. As I mentioned, this is an over 3 hour film, which in and of itself isn’t a negative. However, the problem is the story does not sustain such a run-time and the pacing feels self-indulgent and ponderous. There are so many scenes that felt unnecessary or over-extended beyond what is needed for the plot

For example, there’s a scene where a character has a wet car and they joke about the wetness coming from a fish. “What kind of fish?” He doesn’t know. “How can he not know the fish?” I guess that is supposed to be interesting or funny? It certainly was neither for me. There are so many scenes like that where the narrative went nowhere or it told us things we already knew about our characters. So, unless you just love being in the world of mob movies you’re going to lose interest real quick.

irishman5

A lot of the problems in the narrative come down to Frank as a character. At the beginning he talks about coming out of the army and how he learned to follow orders and not feel emotion about the horrors he was both seeing and participating in. This military-like approach becomes his philosophy for working with the mob. He’s workmanlike about his actions and doesn’t have much guilt or conflict about them.

In contrast, in The Godfather Michael’s character is actively fighting his destiny as head of the family. Practically the first scene of the film is him telling Kay he is not his family. Every part of the narrative then leads back to that core conflict. Will Michael give in and follow his father or will he stick to his morals and leave? This is an interesting character arc and it is reinforced by every other character’s choices throughout the film. Each person in the family learns their lives would be better if they just listened to the Don.

In The Irishman there is no such conflict. Up until the very end Frank does what he is told without any kind of moral crisis. I heard some claim the film is about introspection and questioning our legacy. I did not see such a theme. For most of the movie he’s a character who is perfectly happy to be a team player to fiery characters like Jimmy Hoffa.

irishman3

Pacino as Hoffa is more interesting than Frank but we still don’t get much of a character arc from him. He ends the film at the same spot he began at, which would be fine, if I wasn’t asked to watch him not change for over 3 hours. And I know not all movies need someone to root for but with such a run-time shouldn’t we at least empathize with someone? Again, in The Godfather, we are rooting for Michael because his motivations begin so pure.

In my opinion, any good mafia movie should be at least slightly allegorical. The insular nature of the society makes it easy to weave metaphors about both our own society and the individual choices we make. However, for The Irishman I don’t understand what the allegory is? What are we supposed to learn from this mafia soldier? Even the most dramatic moment of the story is executed with little emotion or seeming moral conflict. It is not until the very end that we finally get a narrative of regret and contrition, which in my opinion wasn’t enough.

In the end, despite many strengths in performances and production, The Irishman is not a film I can recommend. As I said, the pacing is too ponderous and self-indulgent, the characters are too stagnant, and the story lacks an emotional punch. Other people clearly disagree, and that’s fine. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy I encourage you to go and see for yourself. It will soon be on Netflix so most people will be able to easily watch it at home. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

4 out of 10

frown

[REVIEW] ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’: Watch the Documentary and then See this Ok Movie

Sitting down to review the new film about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I fear I am going to come across as very negative, so let me state out front: this movie is perfectly amiable and pleasant to watch. I will give it a fresh review. Unfortunately I found the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers from last year to be outstanding. It was one of my favorites of the whole year, so I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed with this just ok narrative movie.

beautiful day

I will be shocked if all the critics don’t at least agree that Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Mr Rogers and his scenes carry the film. However, he is not the lead character, which was a mistake. Matthew Rhys is fine as a the cynical journalist interviewing Fred Rogers for a column in Esquire, but he felt kind of like a case of generic bitter-man syndrome. I wanted to spend more time with Fred Rogers and was anxious to get back to his more layered and interesting character.

They were very careful to not cheapen Fred Rogers’ legacy or scandalize him in any way but the documentary was so much more profound in showing the impact Fred had on millions of children. It had one touching scene after another profiling how his decision to love created a movement of kindness, which blessed so many lives. In this film he seems more like a nice man who makes pies for a few select people. It’s not the same.

Chris Cooper is very good as Rhys’ elderly father. He has been a huge disappointment to his children, and he may be seeking forgiveness a little too late. (Nobody plays a bitter, angry father like Chris Cooper!). There are nice moments between Rhys and Susan Kelechi Watson who plays his very patient wife, and I loved a scene where Fred Rogers prays individually for all of the Vogel family members by name, even the little baby.

I also loved a scene where Fred Rogers is on a train and all the people sing ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ to him and it seems to brighten everyone’s day. I wish there was more of Fred Rogers interacting with the people.

Beautiful-Day-TIFF2019

In fact, there is a great moment in the documentary, which I was sure they would include, where Fred is testifying before Congress to get PBS funding and he is able to win over the heart of a crusty old Senator from his speech. It’s such a cinematic life-moment and would have been easy to include with a flashback or something.

I don’t know. Like I said. I am being harder on it than I probably should. I just think the documentary is much better. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfectly serviceable and amiable film. If people are opposed to seeing documentaries than they will probably love it. As for me, it’s fine, but not as great as I was hoping for.

Watch the documentary and then if you want more watch this…

6 out of 10

smile worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Season of Love’ LGTBQ Community Get a Quality Christmas Romcom

As the founder and lead host of The Hallmarkies Podcast I obviously love Christmas movies! While there are certainly misses like Last Christmas, in general I find the genre to be warm, cheerful and just the thing to put me in a good mood. Naturally I want everyone to participate in the joys of the season including finding holiday films they can connect with. So imagine my happiness when I heard about the new independent film Season of Love. 

In the film, director Christin Baker makes a rare “queer lady holiday movie” and for the most part she succeeds. The story revolves around 3 female couples and their interconnecting romantic entanglements during the days before Christmas.  My favorite couple was between the nervous Lou (Jessica Clark) and the deaf Kenna (Sandra Mae Frank).

season of lvoe

The conflict between Sue (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) and Janey (Janelle Marie) was my least favorite because it seemed illogical that someone who wants to become a singer would get so mad at her singing being put on youtube lovingly by her girlfriend.

But for the most part Season of Love was a sweet holiday romcom. I felt like I got to know all 3 couples well enough and there were enough cute moments that it worked.  The cast is all strong and there is a nice energy behind the entire project. Nothing feels phoned in.

If you like holiday romcoms and are open for something different give a shot. It will be available later this month on VOD and check out their website for more information.

7 out of 10

smile worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Knives Out’: Murder and Mirth at Thrombey Hall

knives-out

One aspect of covering Hallmark movies for my podcast, The Hallmarkies Podcast, that might surprise some people is I find myself talking about murder mysteries quite often. In fact, they have an entire channel called ‘Hallmark Movies & Mysteries’, which is devoted for most of the year to what are called ‘cozy mysteries’. Similar to Murder She Wrote these stories are about amateur sleuths who help uncover the culprits behind usually quite grisly murders in their midst. They have to be enjoyed with a grain of salt as typically the clues don’t stand high scrutiny but they are fun escapism where we can all envision ourselves cracking the case.

In director Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out we get a taste of this type of murder mystery but on the big screen (there is even a recurring gag about Hallmark cozy mysteries throughout the film!). I was as skeptical as anyone going into this film as I have not been a huge fan of Johnson’s previous work in Looper or The Last Jedi. However, I am delighted to tell you he has made a very entertaining film that will keep everyone guessing from beginning to end.

knivesout-movies-gallery-01

First of all, the cast is outstanding. Daniel Craig steals the show as Detective Benoit Blanc: a man who is hired by a mysterious benefactor to look into the death of famed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Upon arriving at the house Blanc begins questioning all involved including Thrombey’s relatives and the staff of the home.

Ana de Armas stars as Thrombey’s nurse and close confident. She is helpful for a detective because she cannot lie without throwing up. Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and more all do entertaining character work. I also really enjoyed the production design of the house and the music by Nathan Johnson.

All that said, it comes down to the script. Johnson manages to have huge exposition dumps but make them entertaining. A recent comparison can be seen in the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express which wasted a similarly gifted cast on exposition that landed with a thud. The key difference is Johnson isn’t taking his film deadly serious where Branagh was so we as viewers can sit back in awe at each new reveal. It’s a blast!

Like I said with the Hallmark cozy mysteries, Knives Out, needs to be taken with a grain of salt and enjoyed as fun escapism. The characters are kooky and the twists surprising, which makes for a really good time at the theater. I highly recommend it.

8 out of 10

smile worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Ford v Ferrari’: Friends, Feuds and Fast Cars

Ford-v-Ferrari-IMAX-poster-600x751-1-600x364Sometimes with all the hubbub around the Oscars this time of year we as cinephiles can get a little snobby about what makes a great film.  Yes the art-pieces are an important and vital part of this artform we love but so is the crowd-pleasing entry that makes the audience stand up and cheer. This is why I am always happy when I see films like Hidden Figures and Black Panther received Best Picture nominations. Despite what some people say making entertainment for the masses is not easy and when it is done well it should be celebrated.

Such is my experience with the new film from director James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari. In this film, he has crafted an immensely satisfying story of an unlikely friendship (theme of 2019) and the battle to build the ultimate racing car that brought them together.

Based on a true story Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby an ex-racer who is tasked by the Ford Motor Company to design a car that can compete, even beat, Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1966. He then recruits the more reckless driver and car-maker Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive the car and lead the team. Both actors are excellent in their roles but they are also surrounded by a talented cast including Jon Berenthal as Lee Iacocca, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon and more.

Christian Bale and Caitriona Balfe in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

I especially loved Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife. She was funny, unpredictable and brought a lot to a role that could have been a one-note long-suffering wife. Tracy Letts is also great as Henry Ford II especially in a scene where he unwittingly endures a test-run on the race track.

Most people will probably praise the racing scenes in Ford v Ferrari, and they are excellent, but  the real star lies in the script and performances. I was so drawn into the characters and story and by the end I wanted to stand up and cheer. I love underdog sports movies and Ford v Ferrari is a very satisfying entry in the genre. But add to it a story of the friendship between Shelby and Miles that felt real and authentic and we have a winner!

Ford-Vs-Ferrari-Photos-Matt-Damon-Christian-Bale

I even liked this movie despite watching it in a theater that felt more like a sauna. It’s rated PG-13 but a mild one. I certainly would feel comfortable taking the whole family and seeing Ford v Ferrari. It’s that good. The only major problem is it is a bit too long at 2 hr 32 min but I didn’t feel the length much. Other than that, it’s a wonderful film everyone will enjoy. The story is interesting, the acting is great, script is well done and the racing scenes work.

Go see it! It’s really good!

9 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

[REVIEW] ‘Playing with Fire’ and Longing for the Family Comedy

Honestly this post will feel more like an editorial than a review. I don’t have that much to say about the latest comedy Playing with Fire. It’s one of those films that think being made for kids is synonymous with making it stupid. Of course, the truth is the reverse: anything made for children needs to be twice as clever and engaging.

1a6524fc-c7b0-4729-b6a2-b791ba125aa9-large16x9_playingfire1200

There are a few hard earned laughs from Keegan-Michael Key but he needs to be careful as he runs the risks of over-exposing and diluting his talent in projects like Playing with Fire. I also thought the kids were pretty cute; although the teenager Brynn is played by Brianna Hildebrand who is 23 and it shows.

Unfortunately there are many more things I did not like. First of all, the film has bad timing with its release coinciding with the fires in Southern California. It feels in poor taste to show firefighters acting like morons when they are risking their lives at this very moment.

Also the film is chocked full of product placement which is always especially distasteful in a movie for children. It’s not bad enough they make a movie that does nothing for their creativity or intellects but they have to sell them SPAM, Kleenex and My Little Pony every 5 seconds?

The oldest child is also very reckless causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage while committing felonies. I’d think she’d be a little grateful for someone saving her life but she sure has a strange way of showing it!

disney live action

All this said, the biggest problem with Playing with Fire is it is just not funny enough. As I was watching it I kept thinking back to the live action Disney films from the 50s and 60s. Sure not all of them were classics but I miss them.

Now we mostly get remakes from Disney live action and even outside of Disney most family comedies are animated now. Whatever happened to films like Blackbeard’s Ghost, The North Avenue Irregulars, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat etc. Even Herbie or The Absent-Minded Professor are much better than most family comedies we see today.

I would so love to get these small budget family films back! We don’t need fancy special effects or expensive actors. Just well written scripts the whole family can enjoy. Why is that so hard?

Instead we get Playing with Fire and I think that’s a real shame

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

frown