Posts Tagged A-rated films

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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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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Knives Out

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Rian Johnson.  Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, LaKeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer.

Between Looper and The Last Jedi, as talented as Rian Johnson clearly is, it was beginning to seem that he would overthink his film plots, writing himself into a corner with no completely satisfying resolution to all the threads and themes he was tying together. Therefore, when I saw the trailers for Knives Out, a comedic whodunnit, I was intrigued, knowing it would be a riveting mystery with plenty of twists, but I was also concerned it would suffer from the same drawbacks that I thought hurt his previous two films.

I don’t know if it was juggling the large cast of characters, having one central twist that everything leads to, or just a case of the third time being the charm, but Knives Out has no such shortcomings and is one of the most clever and enjoyable films of this year.

Johnson knows the expected beats of a murder mystery, and he respects his audience enough to assume they know those beats too. Predictable guesses are quickly subverted, and Johnson is a master of using our expectations as a means of misdirection. Recaps and standard expository material are briskly presented to focus on the driving forces of the movie—the eccentric characters portrayed with juicy flare by the all-star cast and the not particularly subtle but fittingly biting social commentary.

At the head of the cast is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a cross between Columbo, Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and even a touch of Clouseau. He references Conan Doyle’s detective stories and humorously strikes one piano key as if he knows when someone is lying to him. The eccentric accent is some sort of cross between French and Southern American, and it’s a fitting cultural blend in a movie that wants to exalt the meek and humble immigrants while casting down the mighty white nationalists.

The meek and humble immigrant is Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who serves Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) as a nurse and friend after coming to America from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, or whichever South/Central American country pops into the mind of one of Harlan’s family members at the current moment. Most of the family wanted her to attend Harlan’s funeral, but they were all outvoted.

Marta is equally honest as she is meek, and Blanc refers to her inability to lie as a “regurgitatory reflex to un-truthing.” Therefore, when Harlan is found with his throat slit by apparent suicide, Blanc enlists her as his Watson to learn the truth about each family members’ secrets, especially since Blanc received a large sum of cash from an anonymous source to investigate foul play in regards to Harlan’s death.

Most of the family obviously has a motive for wanting Harlan dead, and Johnson spins those motives into a farce of the family politics common at most large family gatherings. It’s especially fitting and comic given then film’s Thanksgiving release. At the same time, Johnson continues his twisting of the tropes one would find in an Agatha Christie mystery with developments that connect the politics and the intrigue as apparent altruism quickly turns into more selfish motives.

In addition to the three main characters, each cast member is given enough material that they make a memorable impression in their supporting roles—all nine members of the family, the maid, the family lawyer, and the two police officers assisting Benoit Blanc. As Harlan’s two surviving children Linda and Walt, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon both display the entitlement of spoiled rich adults. Their children Ransom (Chris Evans) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) have taken that to further extremes. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) fits right into the family’s arrogance and materialism. The scene where and he and Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s deceased son, spar is probably all too familiar to most Americans. Joni and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are the liberal black sheep of the family, at least as long as it’s convenient to be so.

I’ve avoided saying as much as possible about the plot, and it is definitely best to avoid reviews which discuss any of it in detail. The best surprises are not only the mystery reveals and the insignificant details that aren’t, but the ways in which Johnson makes sure every character gets what they deserve.

Knives Out is a film that understands the value of entertainment, and Rian Johnson delivers that in spades on multiple levels, from the thrill of the mystery to the social justice themes. The final scene masterfully ties everything together not only narratively but visually as well, closing a highly worthwhile murder mystery.

 

Personal recommendation: A

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Through a Glass Darkly

Year of release: 1961          Directed by Ingmar Bergman.          Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Lars Passgård.

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.

“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, chapters 1 & 2 respectively

In wrestling with the grief caused by the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis gave voice to some of the darkest fears and notions that anyone can experience in a life of faith: not that there is no God, but that He’s a cruel, heartless sadist. Ingmar Bergman’s “faith trilogy” wrestles with similar questions, wondering how an omnipotent being could also be all good.

Through a Glass Darkly serves as the opening film of the trilogy. The title is a very obvious reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, indicating the (very slightly) more optimistic outlook of this film compared to the two that follow it—Winter Light and The Silence, the titles alone which suggest the dimming light and dying faith of their protagonists and their director.

However, Through a Glass Darkly holds onto hope of one day seeing face to face, acknowledging both the terror and joy of such a possibility.

The frightening potential of beholding God can be seen through Karin (Harriet Andersson), a mentally ill woman who believes her schizophrenic episodes are visions of God. Her final vision—a frightful and horrific analogy of God as an attacking spider that is further explored in Bergman’s subsequent two films, which led to them being labeled a trilogy along with this one—is starkly reminiscent of Lewis’ line, “Deceive yourself no longer.”

At the same time the arc of Karin’s younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) shows the hope and joy of direct communication with God. After spending the majority of the film trying to please his emotionally and physically distant father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and having his relationship with his sister fall apart in increasingly destructive ways, the final scene is a heartfelt face to face exchange with his father about the nature of God. Minus’ takeaway is one of the most startling lines in the film, which summarizes everyone’s need to give and receive love, not just with other people but with God as well.

The lone outsider to this dysfunctional family is Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow), who has clearly understood the “for worse” part of his vows. He confides to David that after Karin was released from the mental hospital, the doctors told him she would never recover. Her illness takes an increasing toll on their marriage, and her family is not much support with Minus’ stony disgust toward his sister’s behavior and David’s selfish artistic desire to exploit his daughter’s illness for one of his novels. In spite of this, Martin’s loyalty to Karin never wavers, regardless of the pain outside forces and people bring into their relationship.

I believe that is an additional metaphor for faith. It is a relationship with God, and while outside factors and other people may attempt to poison it, it is still a relationship from which we should not flee. Even if those forces turn it into a burden, faith is still something beautiful and worth preserving.

As the son of a Lutheran pastor, faith and doubt is at the center of many of Bergman’s films, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in this film, Winter Light, and The Silence. The necessity of doubt as a means to enrich one’s faith, or learning to see with clouded vision, is captured through the insecurities and harshness of the world which the characters here inhabit.

Karin’s mental illness compounds those insecurities, and her explanation that voices tell her what to do may seem as if Bergman is saying religion is a form of mental illness, especially since her final breakdown is caused by her encounter with her malevolent notion of “god.” However, Bergman follows that scene with a moment of salvation for all the characters, which can first be heard approaching in the midst of the Karin’s encounter with the spider god.

It is this moment of salvation where the notion that God is Love starts, but only starts, to become clear. Prior to that, any role of the divine in the lives of the characters was seen, in the words of the title, through a glass darkly. That darkness was intensified by the unhealthy ways Karin, as well as her lonely brother and workaholic father, sought love. In the end, Love wants her healthy and for the family to have a functional relationship.

A lakeside family visit that goes to hell is not an unusual premise for a film, but Bergman’s use of that setting to depict a literal walk through hell with all its doubts and uncertainties creates two parallel journeys about doubt and mental illness that coalesce at the same rock bottom moment. Both trajectories are beautifully captured by Sven Nykvist’s quietly observant camera, inviting us to reflect on what’s before us, but also reminding us there’s more out of the frame that cannot be easily explained.

To continue the Bible verse referenced in the title, for now, we and the protagonists know in part, and when faced with the evil in their lives, it may remain that way. However, there are tangible moments of goodness and grace, even if the coexistence of those moments with tragedy seems like a contradiction. Or as a quote from St. Augustine says, “If you are able to comprehend it, it is not God.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

 

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