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Streetlight Harmonies

Year of release: 2020                            Directed by Brent Wilson

How many people know who Lina Wertmüller is? I doubt many. Going a little further back in film history, do the names Lois Weber and Alice Guy mean anything? Some readers may know John Singleton, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than highly astute film enthusiasts knew Oscar Micheaux. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was until I looked up some black film history to write this review.

At the same time, if I mentioned D. W. Griffith, the chance of recognizing the name of the director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is much higher than the five directors I mentioned in the first paragraph. Those two films receive much higher acclaim and critical study than Falling Leaves, Hypocrites, or Suspense, even though those films predated Griffith’s and pioneered some of the same techniques he claimed to invent.

The difference, of course, in addition to Griffith being an aggressive self-promoter, is that he was a white man, and the history of art in most genres consists of the study of white male creations.

Music is not an exception, and Streetlight Harmonies functions as a sort of missing chapter in a music history textbook. That is not to make this documentary about the origins of doo-wop sound dry and pedantic. On the contrary, the interviews with the musicians who were recording and pioneering new sounds in the ’50s and ’60s are a lively and insightful testament to the joy of creating music and the injustice of the lack of recognition they received at the time, and to much extent still do.

Perhaps the best part of the interviews is that each musician gets to tell their story, which for years was either told for them or ignored completely. We see the harm of cultural appropriation as white musicians released covers of black musicians’ songs, and the songs became associated with the white performer. Listening to performances of those covers juxtaposed with the original versions highlights the differences and the simplifying of elements that would have been less accepted by white musical traditions.

Just as importantly, listening to the performances such as Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers is an incredible experience, both for those who remember or know that music and as an introduction for anyone who did not. The performances are soulful and vibrant, and director Brent Wilson selects some truly inspiring excerpts.

Part of the film fittingly focuses on the civil rights movement, showing the hypocrisy of Americans who accepted black music but not black musicians. At the same time, the artist can never be entirely divorced from their creation, and that music began to partially change minds, at least of younger generations. Even though there was and is still a long way to go in terms of progress, listening to stories of how these artists challenged the racist status quo is nice to watch.

The influence of a genre of music that originated as friends singing on street corners is enormous. In no way to downplay the incredible achievements of The Beatles, whose legacy influenced countless artists, but without the harmonies and sounds of doo-wop, they would not have had the groundwork for many of the sounds they created.

One of the most notable things to learn in undergraduate music history courses is how many of the things we revere Johann Sebastian Bach for were ideas he learned from his predecessors and contemporaries. What makes Bach’s influence so long lasting is the way he flawlessly incorporated those ideas. However, in music school, we still learn about those other influences.

Streetlight Harmonies teaches its audience about one of the most important twentieth century musical influences, without which artists from The Beatles to The Backstreet Boys would not have succeeded. It is a music history lesson that is still badly needed, even in 2020.

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Little Women

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Greta Gerwig.  Staring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, and Tracy Letts.

One of three scenes from Greta Gerwig’s first film Lady Bird that I think about frequently is the final exchange between Saoirse Ronan’s titular senior and Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of her Catholic high school, when they discuss Lady Bird’s college essay. The nun sees through the rebellious teenager shtick and directly tells Lady Bird that her attention to the minute details of life in Sacramento reveals just how much she loves her home. Via Sister Sarah Joan, Gerwig posits that one way to show love is to pay attention.

There is so much Gerwig pays attention to in Little Women—the relationships between all of the March sisters, the music that Beth plays, Amy’s paintings, the filters and lighting for different timelines, the ink stains on Jo’s hands, the delight of children on discovering a beautiful story. All of this conveys a love of sisterhood, family life, movie making, art and literature, women authors, and above all her characters, her actors, and her audience.

Gerwig loves her audience enough to respect their intelligence. She assumes that most people in 2020 have some familiarity with the source material either through reading the novel or seeing previous film adaptations. Instead of remaking Little Women for it’s fifth silver screen adaptation, she reimagines the story in ways that highlight often overlooked elements from previous adaptations, strengthening the bonds between each of the sisters and giving each one of them their own arc.

She achieves this through her nonlinear telling of Louisa May Alcott’s famous story. This decision has earned her some criticism. To be fair, the reordering of the chronology with frequent flashbacks and crosscutting within the same timelines could be confusing for someone not familiar with the story. However, the bond among all the sisters is strengthened by Gerwig’s presentation, and her lighting and filter choices always make it clear whether we’re in the earlier or later timeline.

The earlier timeline begins with the ball at which Jo (a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan) meets Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and it starts seven years before the later timeline that opens the movie. The earlier timeline is always lit with a soft golden hue, contrasted with the lack of filters for the later timeline, suggesting a fond recollection of earlier years, which will serve as inspiration for the later years when Jo writes her novel.

That novel is Little Women, and Gerwig plays up the quasi-autobiographical aspects of Alcott’s novel making it clear that Jo is a stand-in for Alcott. The opening shot of Jo as she stands outside the publishing office ready to stride in to offer her first short story for publication makes clear the film’s celebratory attitude toward women succeeding in male-dominated fields. Considering film directing is another field in which women are woefully underrepresented, Gerwig’s recent Oscar snub for best director is all the more painful.

The published with whom Jo collaborates is Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, an actor Gerwig clearly loves working with), and the exchanges between Letts and Ronan are as delightful as they are different from their scenes in Lady Bird. The scene that changes his mind on the quality of Jo’s writing is wonderful, and that alone makes the quasi-biographical approach worthwhile.

Following this first scene focused on Jo, the film cuts to Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) when she runs into Laurie for the first time. This juxtaposition is brilliant. First of all, it sets up Amy and Jo as dual protagonists allowing each of them to grow with one another from their more contentious times as children to their full support for one another when they’re older. Secondly, it references Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal while simultaneously foreshadowing Amy and Laurie’s marriage, which is a plot point that often feels like a hurried afterthought in other film adaptations.

The nonlinear approach enables Pugh to play both the younger and older Amy, since her exact age is never specified. It’s wonderful to watch Pugh’s gradual transition from playing cavalier and immature to responsible and supportive, and she is equally believable as both.

The other sisters are introduced immediately after Jo and Amy. It’s easy to miss that Gerwig does that, but it’s a great way of highlighting the unity of the March family. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is first seen at her piano, her passion and the thing that helps her overcome some of her shyness when she later plays Mr. Lawrence’s (Chris Cooper) piano. The acts of kindness that lead to that scenario are what temporarily extend her life. Meg (Emma Watson) is shown to have become a Marmee herself, even as she used dream of fashion and high society until that dream was replaced by another one, even if it was hard for Jo to accept that.

We meet Marmee (Laura Dern) a little bit later when Laurie takes Meg and Jo home from that first dance and meets the entire family. Dern plays the matriarch with quiet grace and compassion, but she also captures Marmee’s controlled anger and frustration that is often not included in adaptations. Dern’s balancing of emotions enables the four actresses to play off her and the safe home she provides. Gerwig once again shows the importance of a mother’s influence and relationship with a daughter or daughters.

If there’s any particular scene where the nonlinear approach pays off in spades it’s Beth’s scarlet fever and later sickness and death. Gerwig freely cuts back and forth between both illnesses, comparing and contrasting the emotions of Jo and Marmee for the two different outcomes. It is always clear which sickness is onscreen due to the filters, but the pain of losing a loved one and the joy of their recovery are felt so strongly from the way the shots are edited together.

After watching this for a fourth time, the friend with whom I saw it said afterward, “I thought Beth’s death would be easier to watch a second time, but no.” I concurred that the emotions Gerwig captured only become stronger after each viewing. The richness of relationships, joys of success, and pains of loss are all presented with care and precision by Gerwig, and each scene plays out so perfectly that the entire film becomes a celebration of the ways we, and the characters, show and live their love.

 

Personal recommendation: A+

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The Two Popes

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Fernando Meirelles.  Staring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins.

As Steven Greydanus noted in his review of The Two Popes, Roger Ebert’s Memoirs of a Geisha principle applies to this movie: the more you know about the subject the harder it is to overlook the glaring inaccuracies. Deacon Greydanus has done the heavy lifting regarding some of the more outrageous claims the movie puts forward about Benedict, so I see no need to repeat the rebuttal here other than to add a few points of my own.

The notion that Benedict, “God’s Rottweiler,” was an uptight conservative holding onto the worst elements of Catholicism and Francis is a progressive reformer who will guide the Church into the 21st century is hardly original to this film. Still, it’s a preconception that gets on my nerves, partially because I think it’s very reasonable to argue that Francis is less progressive than Benedict XVI was, considering the countless times Benedict wrote about care for the environment, social justice, and was the pope who said democratic socialism is completely compatible with Catholicism.

However, since historical fiction has a valuable place and purpose—I really need to find time to write about why Amadeus is one of the greatest works of cinema, but that’s for another day—it’s worthwhile to accept the movie’s premise and review it on its own terms. I think it also fails as a work of historical fiction.

That failure is put into light partially by the most historically accurate parts: the flashbacks of a young Father Bergoglio (Juan Minujín) discerning his vocation, navigating the Argentine Dirty War as a bishop while trying to keep as many people alive as possible, and later passionately calling for economic justice. These scenes are some of the best of the movie and on their own make a compelling cinematic story of the first South American pope.

However, as promising as those scenes are, they are always followed by the fictitious meeting between Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) that forms the bulk of the narrative. While the notions of cross-examining and changing long-held beliefs are important and interesting, the portrayal always becomes overly simplistic with the mentality of Benedict = BAD and Francis = GOOD.

The hagiographical portrayal of Francis almost makes him seem above criticism. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles work hard to refute the more scandalous claims that have been leveled against Francis, but Benedict gets no such treatment. The scenes of him playing the piano are nice, and the filmmakers respect his love of reading and scholarship, but compared to the treatment Francis gets, it’s akin to Benedict’s insufficient reforms regarding the sex abuse scandal: too little, too late.

Dramatically, that’s a problem, because it undermines the climax where both pontiffs admit their shortcomings and confess to one another, but from what we’ve seen only one of them has any real need to confess. Bergoglio essentially has an Oskar Schindler moment that he could have done better, which is not a sin per se.

The confession scene also briefly portrays Benedict as more heterodox than Francis. Randomly granting absolution at the end of a conversation in which someone admits they feel remorse is not a confession, and I personally know very orthodox Catholics who would be aghast at a priest doing such a thing without the ritual of the sacrament. After an entire film in which Benedict is a strict rules follower to have him reverse course that abruptly is ludicrous.

More problematic is Benedict’s confession. I’m willing to overlook that he confesses he knew about Marcial Maciel’s crimes and did nothing (John Paul II knew and did nothing; Benedict removed him from ministry), because there were plenty of other times Benedict handled the sex abuse in the Church badly and conflating Benedict with John Paul II in this scene works with the premise. However, the cut to Bergoglio’s reaction implies that he is going to be the perfect reformer who cleans house and fixes the sex abuse problem in the Church.

To quickly summarize the failures of the past three popes in that regard: John Paul II was in denial the sexual abuse was happening, Benedict put weak, insufficient reforms in place, and Francis seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s been taken care of and he can focus his energy on climate change and economic justice. Making Francis seem like he will correct Benedict’s failures in this regard seriously downplays the extent of the sexual abuse that has plagued the Church and still does.

As a thought experiment, if the film replaced Benedict XVI with John Paul II and Cardinal Bergoglio with Cardinal Ratzinger, I think it might be less inaccurate, at least regarding the retirement subplot and Ratzinger’s reluctance to be pope. I know inaccuracies in historical fiction are beside the point, but I think that highlights how committed the filmmakers are to the notion of Francis as reformer, even at the cost of consistent characterization or real reforms.

 

Personal recommendation: D

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Frozen II

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.  Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Evan Rachel Wood.

The relationship with a sister is something to be cherished. That was the driving force behind Frozen, and it continues to be so for this originally unplanned sequel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel reprising their roles) receives more attention here, as the bond between them is once again tested in a journey into an enchanted forest, as fears of change, isolation, and issues of trust threaten to ruin their relationship once again.

If you’re saying, “didn’t they resolve those issues at the end of the first film,” yes, they did. However, since when has anyone just stopped a destructive habit after doing it for a lifetime? The unconditional love between the two sisters remains, and how they navigate threats with that as their foundation is where the sequel places its focus.

I loved Frozen when it came out. I saw it back to back days in the theater. At the time, I admitted that the secret villain twist was obviously an afterthought that didn’t work at all, but I thought everything else was fantastic, except for a couple clunker songs such as “Fixer Upper” and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.” It was frustrating when Disney put all their promotions toward “Let It Go” as the best song, when it clearly was (and is) “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”—a song about one sister begging the other for a relationship, which is the heart of the film. I can’t even hear the first notes of it without tearing up.

Some of the weaknesses have become more noticeable over time. I still enjoy Frozen immensely, although not quite as much as I originally did.

I love and appreciate this sequel more than I ever cared for the first one. The score is more uniformly excellent with fewer standout numbers, but a higher caliber of songs overall. None of them are as good as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” But almost all are on par with “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go.” I really appreciated the way the songs set up one another and connect to the main themes of isolation and trust in the midst of life’s changes.

“All is Found” is a lullaby that sets the mood for the film that follows, promising a story of mystery and fantasy that also has a sense of tenderness in the midst of fear. “Some Things Never Change” functions similarly to “For the First Time in Forever,” but it introduces several subplots and grounds the characters in what’s most important to get them through the subsequent journey in which things will obviously change.

Elsa’s big “I want” song this time is “Into the Unknown,” which seems to be where Disney is (correctly) placing its Oscar hopes. For my money, it’s a stronger song than “Let It Go,” not only musically, but also for being the instigation of the plot and for having a satisfying dramatic answer in “Show Yourself,” which occurs in the second act of the film. Idina Menzel once again belts the demanding range with authority, transitioning from the insecurity of the verse to the confidence of the chorus.

“When I Am Older” continues the carefree shuffle from “In Summer” into another Olaf solo about learning to make sense of the world, while searching for Samantha, even if you don’t know anyone named Samantha. Josh Gad is every bit as funny as he was in the first film, and his new song here is at least as good. Olaf’s philosophical crisis is not only great comic relief, but ties into the plot nicely as well.

Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, returning) gets a longer solo than “Reindeers Are Better Than People” with “Lost in the Woods,” which is the power ballad ending the first act of the film instead of “Let It Go.” This is a brilliant idea on several levels. For most of the film the characters are literally lost in the woods and struggling to prevent themselves from becoming lost emotionally from one another. Taking the focus briefly away from the sisters appropriately heightens the conflict at the narrative center of the movie.

Anna has her own solo this time as well. Strongly emphasizing the heart of both this film and its predecessor is the relationship of the two sisters, it follows both of Elsa’s solos, indicating she cannot complete her journey without the aid of her sister. “The Next Right Thing” is also a powerful testament to finding your way out of depression and helplessness even when it doesn’t seem possible. Kristen Bell certainly does not have the voice Menzel does, but the intimacy and tenderness of her performance is a haunting complement to the virtuosity of Elsa’s songs.

As I said, “Into the Unknown” is the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. After Elsa hears a voice reminding her of her mother, she accidentally wakes up the four spirits of enchanted forest (earth, wind, fire, and water), endangering the lives of the people of Arendelle. She, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf set off to the forest to find out what has upset the spirits and appease them before it’s too late. The main plot points are fairly obvious well in advance, but that plot is primarily a backdrop for the relationship between Anna and Elsa, which takes forefront here more powerfully than the first film.

Similar to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the sins of the proper, civilized court are exposed and atoned for in the wild fantasy of the woods. Anyone who has seen any recent family films will probably be able to guess who committed the unatoned for sin, but once again, that’s not the main focus of this movie. The bond between sisters and friends forms the film’s center, and when people we trust betray us, monsters chase us, or any unknown confronts us, it’s those bonds that hopefully remain constant, and they form the roots from which we grow.

In the midst of his philosophical musings, Olaf asks if the enchanted forest will transform them. He then wonders what a transformation is. There’s a small one just after that when Elsa confronts the fire spirit with calmness and acceptance, making what was first seen as a monster into a cute harmless lizard. It’s a small act of kindness, which in turn foreshadows greater acts of compassion and love that allow the fears of the unknown to be a source of transformation and not destruction.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

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Marriage Story

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Noah Baumbach.  Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Azhy Robertson.

When Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Hal Prince were working on Company in the late sixties, they wanted to craft a musical about relationships, commitment, and the fear of commitment while simultaneously taking the marital problems theatregoers came to a musical to escape and throwing those problems back in their faces. The initial staged finale rejected marriage entirely, and Prince said it was too depressing and shocking for an audience in 1970. Sondheim and Furth then wrote a new ending which gave us one of Sondheim’s most famous and beautiful songs: “Being Alive.” In Sondheim’s words, it’s a progression “from complaint to prayer,”¹ and in the context of the show it acknowledges the fears and difficulties of relationships while simultaneously showing the importance of human connections.

Why am I talking about Company? In regards to Marriage Story to reveal the reason would spoil one of the best cinematic surprises of this year, so I will only say that it features into the film in two crucial scenes. Those scenes both beautifully underscore the driving premise of the film: that you cannot use another person as a source of your happiness, but after you’ve shared any meaningful part of your life with someone, even if parts of it were toxic and divorcing them was a necessity, there will always be some love for them and the ways they drove your crazy and put you through hell that makes the divorce and separation all the more painful.

Painful is the optimal descriptor for Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s newest film about self-centered yet sympathetic characters whose desires for themselves lead them to clash with one another. That clash begins when protagonists Charlie (Adam Driver)—a New York based stage director—and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)—an actress from LA—decide to separate. The two of them have lived and worked in New York for approximately ten years where they’ve also raised their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). However, an amiable separation escalates after Nicole visits Nora, a divorce attorney played by Laura Dern, prompting Charlie to seek his own legal counsel in the form of Jay (Ray Liotta).

If there are any villains in the film, they are the lawyers, and both Dern and Liotta dig into their roles with zeal that makes their characters easy to hate. At the same time, to say that the lawyers are the villains who prey upon the pain of this couple, and thus exacerbate it, for their financial benefit, grossly misses the harm that Charlie and Nicole wreck not only upon each other, but upon their son, and upon themselves as well.

That is the pain that makes Marriage Story a somber viewing experience, and in my opinion, an indescribably powerful one as well. It’s an overused truism that pain can be cathartic, but this journey into hell, which leaves its protagonists with gaping wounds and scars reveals that in order for both Charlie and Nicole to heal the unhealthiness of their relationship, the proverbial bandage needs to be ripped off, exposing the ugliness that has been gradually festering for years.

It may not sound like an enjoyable experience to watch, and if someone has a personal aversion to vicious family dramas, Marriage Story would be near excruciatingly unbearable to sit through. A film that is about the destruction of a relationship probably sounds like it could never be inspiring. However, the performances, dialogue, directing, editing, and scoring are all out of this world, and it is a joy to see this level of perfect craftsmanship. Furthermore, they are not being used in a story in which divorce is something to be rooted for, but as an exposition of an unhealthy relationship from which a divorce is inevitable. Marriage Story is a depiction of how anyone can learn from the mistakes that led to such a toxic relationship and grow from them after it inevitably ends.

Growth is ultimately at the heart of Marriage Story. That growth can be seen in the transformation of the opening voiceovers, and also in the aforementioned tribute to Company. The film opens with two voiceovers: one from Charlie, the other from Nicole. They recall the reasons they fell in love with one another and the ways that love grew during their marriage. Both voiceovers are accompanied by montages of the spouse being described, edited in a sort of honeymoon bliss home movie that only looks at the roses of a relationship.

At the same time as roses, thorns grow as well, and pruning that mess is where true growth for all the characters happens. The scene where Charlie and Nicole confront the largest and ugliest thorn coming between them is as explosive as the climax of such a story should be.

The conclusion shows a transformation, giving an earlier scene an entirely new meaning, and also showing how a seemingly simple act of consideration for someone else is the basis for any type of love growing between two people, even if it’s a love that should not be manifested in a marriage.

Finally, there’s one other transformation that only some people will pick up on, but it takes something that initially appeared one way, and adds layers of richness by presenting it in a completely different context. I can’t spoil what that is, but the way it microcosmically depicts the journey from pain to acceptance is hands down my favorite scene of any movie this year.

 

Personal recommendation: A

 

 

1 Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 196.

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