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

‘The King’ is a Slog Through Shakespearean Henriad History

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CREDIT: Netflix

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Tom Glynn-Carney

Director: David Michôd

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Messy War Combat

Release Date: October 11, 2019 (Limited Theatrically)/November 1, 2019 (Streaming on Netflix)

Once more unto the breach, dear friends? It’s awfully muddy in that breach. That seems to be the big advantage of turning Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2!) and Henry V into a movie in 2019: you can make it as muddy as you need it to be! And director David Michôd sure wanted that breach to be muddy. And Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script with Michôd) won’t let us forget it. Not that we would have been able to miss it anyway.

I majored in English literature in my undergraduate days, so watching The King is like revisiting old friends for me, but excessively grim versions. I know right from the get-go that wary-of-the-crown Prince Hal will soon enough become King Henry V, Beloved War Hero. But even if I’d never read one verse of Shakespeare, I would have been able to figure that out easily enough. That’s how these narratives tend to play out after all, and also Timothée Chalamet is so hot right now. But that predictability is not necessarily a problem. Shakespeare did not establish his reputation on twisty plots, but rather on wonderfully poetic language. Alas, The King does not have the wit to match. I of course do not demand nor expect that every new Shakespeare adaptation feature iambic pentameter, but if there is going to be as much dialogue as there is in The King, it would be nice if it were at least somewhat exciting. But alas, it seems that war is not only hell, it’s also boring.

As we make our way through the muck into the Battle of Agincourt, The King eventually comes alive somewhat in the form of Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the French side’s secret weapon, at least in terms of charisma. He seems to have been warped by the warring status quo between France and England into some sort of almost inhuman, devious little sprite. He is less interested in victory or survival than he is into sucking out the life force of his rivals. I haven’t seen any of those Twilight movies, so for me, this feels like the first time Pattinson has ever played a vampire on screen. If only the other combatants had the verve to match.

The King is Recommended If You Like: Shakespeare minus the poetry

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chainmail Suits

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Beautiful Boy’ Captures the Wrenching Agony and Anxiety of Addiction

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, Timothy Hutton, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R for Unflinching Drug Injection

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

Since becoming the sort of moviegoer who sees as many new releases as possible, I have noticed more and more a certain breed of film that portrays anxiety so unflinchingly that I would never recommend watching it to anyone suffering through their own bouts of anxiety. Perhaps this type of film has been around for decades, and the reason I hadn’t taken notice before was because I would have rarely voluntarily watched them while just hanging out at home, trying to have a good time. But I suspect that it is also true that as a culture we have become more comfortable with portraying mental struggles on screen. Whatever the explanation for this trend, it is time to recognize and codify the Overwhelming Anxiety subgenre for the sake of all moviegoers.

Beautiful Boy might just be the apotheosis of the Overwhelming Anxiety film. It is certainly the most painful example that I can remember. It even features a scene with a doctor examining an MRI scan of an addict’s brain, explaining that the anxiety receptors are essentially screaming out in agony. The addict in question is Nic Sheff, whose mere existence became a constant struggle for his family when he started using methamphetamine as a teenager. Timothée Chalamet plays Nic in a constant state of agony; even in the quieter moments when he seems to be getting by okay, he subtly conveys the black hole in his soul that is impossible to fill except with years of hope and patience. Beautiful Boy is primarily about the destruction that addiction levels against the addict’s loved ones, and bearing the brunt of that is Nic’s father David (Steve Carell). Father and son are like two halves of a whole that cannot possibly disconnect, even when a break seems like it must be the healthiest choice. Carell and Chalamet give performances that are wonders to behold, but just make sure you give your brain a quick health check before you attempt to behold them.

Beautiful Boy is Recommended If You Like: Hoping against hope, Great acting about difficult subject matter

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Addiction

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Call Me by Your Name’ is a Quietly Desperate Plea to Place No Limits on Love

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Sticky Solo Sessions and Unbridled Pairings

Release Date: November 24, 2017 (Limited)

At the end of Call Me by Your Name, Oliver (Armie Hammer) checks in with Elio (Timothée Chalamet) over the phone. Elio’s parents join in on the call for a bit. After they hang up, Oliver notes how they talk to him like he is a member of the family. This accomplishment might seem small, but this sort of comfortable intimacy is a profound state that should not be discounted. Plenty of people in human history have achieved it, but many others have not. For Elio and Oliver, this is a postscript, but what they have shared is lovely enough to cherish forever.

Call Me by Your Name’s message is clear enough without having to be directly stated, but I appreciate that it is gently stated in the way that it is, thanks to Michael Stuhlbarg’s tender delivery. As Elio’s dad, archaeology professor Mr. Perlman, Stuhlbarg conveys an unforgettable treatise on why life is worth living. Simply by the power of observation, he knows what has been going on. It is the summer of 1983 in the northern Italian countryside, where Elio is living with his parents, and Oliver, an American student, is the latest houseguest they have invited to stay with them. Elio and Oliver spend several passionate nights and days together. Maybe they have fallen in love, maybe it is too soon to say so. Either way, their relationship is not fated to last beyond the summer. And in this situation, what Elio and the audience could use more than anything is assurance from his father that all is right. So many people make choices that leave them “bankrupt by the time [they’re] 30,” he tells us, but Elio has chosen love, and there is no reason to regret that.

There are few people who have loved anything as much as Mr. Perlman loves discovering and examining new artifacts. But loving another human being is a little harder, what with the back-and-forth, and the confusion, and the hormones, and the jealousy flare-ups. Love is not always easily strictly defined, either. Elio and Oliver may or may not both be bisexual. They certainly appreciate the female beauty around them; Elio even has a pretty intense fling with a girl close to his age (Esther Garrel). But they both gravitate most heavily to the most intense attractions, and that means plenty of fun but also plenty of sticky situations (and commensurate teasing), as we are all slaves to our bodily fluids. The whole of Call Me by Your Name, in fact, is a mix of pretty and sticky, a tapestry we ought to embrace if it is ever available to us.

Call Me by Your Name is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, Any great romance with lovely cinematography

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nosebleeds

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lady Bird’ Will Speak Volumes to Anyone Who Went to Catholic High School in the Early 2000s, or Anyone Who Was Ever a Teenager at Any Time

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CREDIT: Merie Wallace/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Laura Marano, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Brief Pornographic Images, But Otherwise It Should Be PG-13 for Teens Being Teens

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)

It makes sense that much of Lady Bird takes place in a Catholic school, as both the Church and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut strongly advocate for the inherent dignity of the individual human being. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by “Lady Bird” (which still counts as a given name because she gave it to herself), is a high school senior in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California,” as she puts it) in 2002 (according to her, the most exciting thing about that year is that it is a palindrome) who dreams of escaping to a liberal arts college on the East Coast, despite her thoroughly average academic résumé. There is a hint that she is an underachiever (an offhand comment notes that her SAT scores are surprisingly high), but no matter the why of her being in the middle, her life struggle is still compelling. It is not so much that she has a particularly unusual personality or worldview by teenage millennial standards; she doesn’t really. Rather, she is worth paying attention to because someone bothered to tell her story.

The most filling narrative meat involves Lady Bird’s interactions with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Anyone who has had constant drag-out cutting fights with their own mother despite both sides wanting to get along will recognize this impasse. Metcalf is an expert at navigating the fluid dynamics of parent/child relationships, while Ronan is heartbreaking as she attempts to reconcile forging her own identity with pleasing the people she cares about. And let’s not sleep on Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s dad Larry, her quiet ally making his own way through job insecurity and depression. His is a notably un-showy performance surrounded by a couple of demonstrative women, but his quiet embodiment of personal dignity still comes through loud and clear.

For a 90-minute film, Lady Bird has a remarkably deep bench, but that is just natural for a film that values dignity so highly. As Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein could have easily been the wacky sidekick, but instead she’s a supportive, goofy pal who also has her own stuff going on. Lucas Hedges slots in nicely as the first boyfriend who turns out to be closeted – his story is familiar, but deeply felt. We do not see as much of Timothée Chalamet and Odeya Rush as an alternate love interest and the popular girl, respectively, but we get enough that their characterizations go beyond “Strokes-esque rocker boy” and “airhead in advanced placement classes.” All the kids speak in the faux-profundity typical of adolescence (“very baller” is spouted in the same breath as “very anarchist), a touch that is both mocking and respectful, taking these kids to task but also treating them honestly. And special mention must also be made of Lois Smith as a nun who loves a good prank, surprisingly enough.

Gerwig fills in this world with a lot of well-observed details that give a natural sheen to post-9/11 American reality. Lady Bird rebukes a classmate for being “Republican” when bringing up concerns about terrorism in New York. The soundtrack draws from five years earlier more so than it does the hits of 2002, recognizing the eclectic nature of Gen Y (that has only grown more eclectic). Lady Bird is simply a sharply observed film about one voice and many voices, and all anyone has ever asked for is that they be given a chance for their voices to be heard.

Lady Bird is Recommended If You Like: Saved!, Adventureland, An Education

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Communion Wafers