Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ Demonstrates the Power of Renewed Resonance Through Reorganizing

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Columbia/Sony Pictures

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper

Director: Greta Gerwig

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Few Bloody Knuckles and General Adolescence

Release Date: December 25, 2019

I’m a big advocate for the value of consuming a story in whatever order you damn well please. If you get engrossed in a movie halfway through and then watch the beginning at some future point, then bully on you. If you watch the last season of a popular TV show first and then catch up on previous seasons in a random zigzagging order, that sounds fascinating. If you always skip ahead to the last paragraph of a novel and also reread your favorite chapters before you’re done the whole thing, then it sounds like you’re someone who enjoys experimenting. To all of you who fit in any of those categories, you’ve got a kindred spirit in Greta Gerwig, who plays mix-and-match with her rendition of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, one of the most beloved and oft-adapted works of American fiction.

If I were to extend my advocacy for watching something in whatever order you like to its logical end, then I could say that you could watch this Little Women in an even more chronologically mixed-up fashion than it already is. (Or you could go in the opposite direction, and I bet there is someone out there who will one day re-edit this film into a more temporally linear fashion.) But Gerwig’s chosen order of events is far from arbitrary. The opening scene and one of the final moments especially underscore the themes that she wants to bring to the surface.

There is a general air of light postmodernism to this movie, in the sense that there is a tacit understanding that the majority of the audience is already familiar with the story. Thus, Gerwig begins with scenes in which the little women are closer to, if not already, grown adults. The most iconic episodes from earlier in the March sisters’ lives do not need to be rehashed, at least not right away. Instead, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) kicks things off by bounding into a publishing office to sell a story she’s written. It’s bought by a Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), but he also tells her that if her main character is a girl, she must be married (or dead) by the end. Chances are that most viewers know that these are indeed the fates that await the March sisters, but a collective smirk is likely to form across the crowd at this moment, because we also know that the entire purpose of Little Women is that these significant lives are not just reduced to their expected conclusions.

The other essential moment comes when the far-flung temporal settings have caught up with each other, and Jo is fretting to her sisters that her completed novel, based on her own family life, is about a trivial topic and nothing important. Even though she is mightily invested in her own work, she is still subscribing to the idea that only “important” subjects are really worthy of being written about in novels. But then her youngest, always fiercely opinionated sister Amy (Florence Pugh) insists that the mere act of writing about a subject confers importance upon it. And so, because Gerwig is telling this story once again, and because it is clearly a labor of love for her, and because Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are there alongside her and Ronan and Pugh to round out and bring to life the March sisterhood, all of that is the reason why Little Women is important in 2019.

Little Women is Recommended If You Like: Revisiting the classics

Grade: 4 out of 5 Adaptations

Movie Review: Agony and Catharsis Fight for Prominence in the Emotional Turbulence of ‘Midsommar’: Which Makes It Out on Top?

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Graphic Pagan Rituals

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Plenty of horror movies have served as metaphors for emotionally turbulent life events (Don’t Look Now, The Babadook, and director Ari Aster’s own Hereditary, to name a few), but never before have I been so relieved by that fact than in the case of Midsommar. Because if it weren’t a metaphor, its ending would be way too distressing to bear. The conclusion is about as terrifying as one could imagine given the premise, but it’s leavened with a sense of relief, as a breakup that really needed to happen has finally happened. If that sounds like a spoiler, rest assured that I’m just stating the inevitable.

Midsommar opens with Dani (rising supernova Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor, aka Seth Rogen’s long-lost Irish cousin) looking like they are both about to realize their need to split up, but then Dani experiences a sudden family trauma, and dumping her is fully out of the question at this point as she really needs someone to lean on. If nothing else, Midsommar is about the importance of having a reliable network of emotional support, and the danger of how that need can be manipulated. That fact is unavoidable when Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) takes Dani and Christian and their other friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to the Swedish commune he grew up in. It’s summer in Scandinavia, which means that the sun seemingly never sets, thus providing the perfect setting to confirm, or perhaps exceed, our worst suspicions of what a “commune” in a horror movie really means.

Ultimately, I am not quite sublimely thrilled by Midsommar; not quite underwhelmed, but perhaps just whelmed. It delivered what I expected, based on the trailer and Florence Pugh’s unrestrained agony on the poster. In that vein, it reminds me quite a bit of Get Out, which was similarly groundbreaking in its concept but rather straightforward in its accomplishment once I got onboard with its premise. But Get Out has proved ripe for revisiting and benefited accordingly, and I imagine that the same might be true in the long run for Midsommar once it is less weighed down by expectations. It certainly has the indelible imagery to make repeat visits worthwhile.

Midsommar is Recommended If You Like: The Wicker Man, Hereditary, Emotional Turmoil Raising the Stakes of Horror

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unexplained Bears

Movie Review: ‘Fighting with My Family’ Shows Us the Heart and Triumph Over Adversity in a Life Devoted to Wrestling

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CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Bodily Sacrifices of Wrestling, Crude Comments, and Drunken Misbehavior

Release Date: February 14, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide February 22, 2019

Most inspirational sports flicks follow the same rise-fall-rise structure, down to every little setback and triumph. But it makes sense that audiences have never fully tired of this genre, because while it may be repetitive, it is rarely unrealistic. Athletics is one field of human endeavor in which you can explicitly say whether or not you have emerged the winner. And just about every champion, or at least the ones worth watching, has at some point felt like an underdog. The professional wrestling biopic Fighting with My Family does nothing to mess with that formula. But while wrestling may be staged, there is still plenty uncertain along the way, and there is similarly enough uniquely compelling and surprising about Fighting with My Family to make its allegiance to formula plenty forgivable.

Florence Pugh stars as Saraya “Paige” Bevis, who at the age of 21 in 2014 became the youngest winner ever of WWE’s Divas Championship. (As far as I could tell from the movie and looking up footage of Paige’s actual fight, this is one WWE tournament in which the winner is not predetermined.) Paige comes from a wrestling-obsessed family in working-class England, and she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have dreamt their whole lives of rising to the ranks of WWE together, but alas, only Paige is given the opportunity.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know that there will be a happy ending. You just have to watch the commercials and have enough common sense to know that if Paige didn’t become a champion, there probably wouldn’t be a movie about her. But considering that it ends on a note of such undisputed victory, there is a lot of bleakness along the way. Figuring herself a weirdo outcast, Paige struggles to get along with the more traditional hard bodies among her fellow recruits, and the isolation she experiences in sleekly empty, oppressively artificially lit hotel rooms is palpable. Even more intense are Zak’s demons. He put all his chips in the WWE basket, and as he feels that dream slipping away, he quickly transforms from a chipper young buck devotedly in love with his girlfriend and happy to be a new father into the most resentful person in the world. When Paige ultimately triumphs, it is as inspiring as it ought to be, but because of those descents into darkness, Fighting with My Family‘s most heartening moments are the times when the Bevis family make it clear that they have each other’s backs, and that is why this entry lifts itself atop the genre.

Fighting with My Family is Recommended If You Like: Professional wrestling and the stories behind it, Rocky, Warrior, Wacky working-class families

Grade: 4 out of 5 Title Belts

This Is a Movie Review: The Commuter

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CREDIT: Jay Maidment/Lionsgate

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Andy Nyman, Rolland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for All the Ways That Liam Neeson Can Improvise on a Train to Dispatch His Opponents

Release Date: January 12, 2018

Much of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken filmography has been readily reduced to “Taken on a [blank]” or “Taken, but this time they steal his [blank].” This is especially true in his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. 2011’s Unknown checked in as “Taken, but this time they steal his identity,” while 2014’s Non-Stop was essentially “Taken on a plane.” Their latest teamup, The Commuter, may at first glance be their “Taken on a train,” but a more accurate pitch would be: “take the government and law enforcement corruption elements of something like Chinatown, compress them into the hijacked train scene of The French Connection, and stretch out to feature length.”

Insurance salesman and former cop Michael McCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off, only a few years before retirement, when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition during his ride home along the Hudson on the Metro-North train: would he be willing to do one little thing that would affect someone he doesn’t know and receive a significant reward in return? This is presented as a hypothetical, but it soon becomes very real when he discovers a hidden bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This is an effectively simple premise insofar as it immediately kicks the narrative into high gear, but it is simultaneously confounding with how many details it leaves under wraps.

Ultimately, that it is to the audience’s benefit, as we are strung along with just enough info to want to sniff out what is going on. All Michael has to go on is the stop that this person is getting off and the fact that he or she does not normally ride this train. Collet-Serra specializes in populating his cast with a full crew of conceivably suspicious characters. Could it be this mystery person be the tattooed girl with a bag full of fake IDs? That certainly raises alarms. But for all we and Michael know, the nurse stuck in an emotional texting session is just as much of a suspect.

The Commuter sort of fits in the vein of the “decent man fights back against a rigged system” genre, but really, that is only the narrative that has been forced upon Michael. Yes, he has been unfairly fired. True, he did lose all his savings thanks to the recent market crash (and he makes sure to flip off the vain Goldman Sachs broker on the train). But the reward dangled in front of him appeals to his selfish motives and does not actually give him an opportunity to stick up for the little guy. Besides, he is driven more by the threats against his wife and son and his own law enforcement instincts for uncovering the truth. It is implied that this criminal enterprise is so insidious and far-reaching it they could set up any patsies they want and frame them for any motivation

As the vast conspiracy begins to be revealed, we are left to confront the question of plausibility. But in a thriller like this, verisimilitude matters less than following the own theoretical rules of this extreme situation. That is to say, The Commuter needs to be at least as relentlessly entertaining as it is ridiculous. And on that score, given the director, star, and location, it is unsurprisingly adroit. The film’s logical internal consistency, though, may be worth investigating a little more deeply, as the passengers at the mercy of Michael’s mission may come to trust him –  a man who has been getting into fights and throwing people out windows – more quickly than is conceivable. A late-stage Spartacus homage is quite amusing, though indicative of that questionable trust. But in a profoundly puzzling situation with life-or-death stakes like this one, it only makes sense to go along for the ride.

The Commuter is Recommended If You Like: Non-Stop, Face/Off, The French Connection

Grade: 4 out of 5 Train Defenestrations

 

This Is a Movie Review: It Isn’t Shakespeare, But This ‘Lady Macbeth’ Is Still Dangerous (and Sexy as Hell)

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Roadside Attractions

This post was originally published on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbank

Director: William Oldroyd

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: R for Unapologetically Passionate Sex and Scarily Desperate Killing

Release Date: July 14, 2017 (Limited)

Sometimes you are knocked out by a supernova of an onscreen performance that you never saw coming. Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth is the latest stunner to pull it off. Logically, I can understand why I had previously never heard of her and why this film in particular snuck up on me. She is 21 and has only three previous IMDb credits, and Lady Macbeth stars English actors I have never heard of. But emotionally, it feels like her star power exists outside of time and that I should have somehow sensed her talent my whole life.

Director William Oldroyd’s film is not based on Shakespeare, but rather Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Still, the central character is a ruthlessly canny power-grabber, so the Bard’s influence is clear and intentional. This adaptation keeps it in the nineteenth century but transfers its setting to England. Katherine (Pugh) is married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), who is either impotent or uninterested in her, or both. But he offers the security of an estate to live in, and it is not like she has any say in the matter anyway. At first, this appears like it is going to be the bleakest of tough watches. It may be true that English women suffered systemic abuses in this time period, but that does not make it any easier to endure.

Soon enough, though, control of the situation, and the narrative, shifts rapidly. With Alexander away from the estate for weeks to attend to pressing business, Katherine initiates a torrid affair with a groundskeeper (Cosmo Jarvis) and dispatches her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), the owner of the estate. Her handmaid (Naomi Ackie) is so shocked that she is rendered mute for the remainder of the film.

Katherine doubles down at every opportunity to procure what she desires to the point that the only possible conclusion is the most lethal of conflicts. Lady Macbeth admirably does not back down from the dangerous requirements it has thus set for itself. At first, you feel sorry for Pugh. Then suddenly you hail her as a new feminist icon. And then in a blink of an eye, you have never been more scared of anybody.

Lady Macbeth is Recommended If You Like: Atonement, Mad Max: Fury Road, You’re Next, Being Aroused and Scared at the Same Time

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Corsets