Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Little Women (2019): A Review (Review #1333)


LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

This latest version of Little Women has some new elements within it that distinguish it from almost all others. First, it is the second adaptation to have a female director though the first to have that director also be the screenwriter (Greta Gerwig). Second, it is performed by actresses who would have more likely grown up with that female-directed version as 'their' version rather than the previous ones. Third, it is the first Little Women to have all of the all-American March sisters be played by non-Americans*. Fourth, this adaptation comes at a time when the role of women on and off the screen has come to the forefront. How can a text well over a hundred years old still work today?

Using a nonlinear structure that takes us from "present day" to seven years earlier and shifting hither and yon between, we see Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) already in New York as a struggling authoress. She does have some interaction with Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), but not much to speak of.

We float between the other sisters and their lives present and past. There's Amy (Florence Pugh), in Europe studying to be a painter under the watchful eye of the haughty Aunt March (Meryl Streep). While there, she entertains the wealthy Fred Vaughn (Dash Barber) but cannot shake the March family friend Theodore Laurence, generally known as Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). There is also Meg (Emma Watson), struggling to keep house and home when once she aspired to marry well only to marry for love. Finally, there's the memory of Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the shy March sister who eventually dies.

As we go from the past to the present to the future past, our four "little women" under the watchful eye of their beloved mother known as Marmee (Laura Dern), love and fight both among each other and with those around them as they strive to be themselves.

Image result for little women 2019I think the most controversial element for this adaptation is Gerwig's decision to make it nonlinear, going from present to past and shifting back and forth. Perhaps someone who has never seen any version of Little Women will not find it as troubling or unnecessarily convoluted as I did, but for myself, there is more than just the loss of a straightforward narrative that left me cold.

By shifting our story back and forth, I think we lose what could be a stronger connection to the March sisters. It almost seemed as if Gerwig opted to film Part 2 of Little Women first, then move on to Part 1. It's hard for me to judge how successful the time shifts are given that I already knew the story, but by going back and forth we lost something. The sisters seem if not strangers at least not as close as perhaps they should be.

Take Beth for example. The sisters all rally to her side when she first gets scarlet fever, making her death all the more tragic for them all. Here, we shift from when she is dying to when she became sick. Gerwig made the deliberate choice of echoing scenes from both moments in the film, but in doing so she made the tragedy less impactful. Not that it wasn't impactful, but it was just less impactful.

Image result for little women 2019One thing that did surprise me was in how Gerwig opted to make Little Women more about Amy than about Jo, almost to where we could have dropped our boisterous tomboy/aspiring writer altogether. Laurie may say he was in love with Jo, but as played by Chalamet he seemed pretty happy to jump from one March sister to another. While he spent more time with Amy in Europe than with Jo in America, he seemed oddly flirtatious with Meg at her debutante ball. When he drunkenly crashes a party, Amy reprimands him while mentioning he still has Jo's ring. Curiously, we see her give Laurie this 'talisman of love' later, and almost as an afterthought, with little to suggest he held this token dear to his heart.

Whether Gerwig wanted to focus more on Amy and Laurie to counterbalance the criticism of how their romance seems absurd in the book or not I cannot verify. What I can say is that for all the protests of love Laurie may make, he seemed oddly detached from Jo. When near the end of the film he proposes marriage, he doesn't seem all that enthusiastic about it. In fact, he seems almost bored with the idea, and he didn't look that much in love with Jo if at all.

Gerwig also appears to be aiming to make The Louisa May Alcott Story versus an adaptation of her most celebrated novel. At the end of the film, as Jo haggles with her editor on her book, "Little Women", she essentially says if she is going to marry off her main character against her wishes, she might as well make money off of it. At which point, she agrees to change the ending to have Jo run to catch Bhaer and kiss under the umbrella.

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Was Gerwig attempting to be meta with Little Women? Was she shifting from the text itself to essentially winking at the audience and suggest the whole thing was just silly? It might explain why Bhaer is superfluous to this adaptation, perhaps more so than in the book. However, was he there because audiences expected him to be?

It's not a slam on Garrel, who while pretty is not as pretty as Chalamet and is more French than German. However, perhaps it would have been better to just go for it and change to text altogether to give Little Women the ending Alcott wanted: a single Jo. Chamalet was as mentioned extremely pretty but I didn't see Laurie as a wounded romantic or particularly close to the Marches. He was just there.

I would say that Pugh gave a fine performance as Amy, the one who knows she has to marry rich since as a woman she has no rights and little to no prospects for her own income. Her Amy could be nasty and arrogant but also touching and kind. I would also say that she is not a supporting role...she is a leading role. Pugh's story to my mind takes more precedence over Jo's, which to me is a radical departure.

Image result for little women 2019Ronan's Jo is equally good: strong, perhaps a bit arrogant in being unable to take the slightest criticism, but equal to any man. Watson, to her credit, has improved her American accent though her scenes of romance with John Brook (James Norton) felt a bit overacted to me. Streep was pretty good as Aunt March, not as tyrannical as in the past but not as sensible as she thought she was. I don't have many memories of Scanlen, and despite what I have heard I was not won over by Dern's Marmee.

One scene did strike me as odd. She's handing out blankets to soldiers and their fathers when she observes, somewhat angrily, "I've spent my whole life ashamed of my country", to which an African-American woman also helping distribute blankets replies, "No offense, but I think you still should be". Given that her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is at the front lines of the Civil War, fighting to end slavery, it seems a very odd and random observation.

If one thing truly elevates Little Women, it is the production itself. Alexandre Desplat's score is pure perfection as are the costumes and sets.

Little Women works well enough, but my issue is in how Gerwig opted to structure her version to where I wondered whether she was telling Jo March's story or Louisa May Alcott's story. It certainly has fine performances and a beautiful score, and perhaps because unlike many viewers I have seen three versions that predate 1994's I see things others may not; on the whole though this for me is the weakest version. Note I did not say the worst or a terrible version, just not the one I would want for my daughters...and sons.

DECISION: B-

*While Saoirse Ronan was born in New York City and is American by birth, she is Irish by nationality. Watson and Pugh are British and Scanlen is Australian.

Little Women Retrospective: An Introduction
Little Women: 1933
Little Women: 1949
Little Women: 1978
Little Women: 1994
Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions

Monday, December 30, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home. A Review

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

I have been highly critical of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on Spider-Man. While I've thought well of Tom Holland as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, I have been endlessly irritated by how he is essentially a blithering idiot, forever going on about "THIS REALLY OLD MOVIE" (i.e. any film released before his birth) or how for someone who started out as a teen whiz-kid he seems incapable of the most basic rational thought.

And I'm not even going to get into how he is so far from the traditional origins of beginning his life of crime-fighting thanks to his Uncle Ben's death.

While Avengers: Endgame is seen as the actual end of Phase Three of our world's longest and most expensive soap opera, Spider-Man: Far From Home is the actual end, or at least a coda on this season's finale, a bit of a holiday special. I know many love the comic hijinks and teen antics of our Queens gang, but by now I figure the MCU audiences are not particular on things like plot. They are perfectly content with Far From Home being essentially a mashup of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 with of all things The Incredibles.

The Blip (also known as The Snap, when half the world's population disappeared only to come back) has caused some issues among teenagers who are technically five years older but look exactly as they did before. In any case, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his wacky friends are all going to Europe for a school trip.

Who knew Queens high schools had that much dough?

Going along for the trip are Peter's unrequited love MJ (Zendaya), his wacky best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), his enemy Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and two new (at least to me) figures: Tracy Flick-like Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) and Brad Davis (Remy Hii), a rival for MJ's affection. Our appropriately if perhaps illogical multicultural gang is under the watchful eyes of teachers Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) and Mr. Dell (JB Smoove).

Image result for spider man far from homePeter, still mourning his mentor/father-figure Tony Stark's death, just wants to be a teen and not the new Tony Stark. While Stark's right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) might want him to succeed Iron-Man, Peter would rather just go to Europe and declare his total love to the dour, sarcastic MJ. Even the presentation of a gift from the late Stark, a pair of glasses that connect Peter to artificial intelligence EDITH is something he struggles with.

Struggles with in both using and figuring out how to use it, as his first efforts resulted in a drone attack on his love rival that nearly killed them all.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) insists Spider-Man help them, going so far as to manipulate the school's itinerary to suit his needs. After his group survived an attack by a water creature in Venice, Parker is recruited to help Quentin Beck, given the new name Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Beck claims to be from an alternate Earth who has come to our Earth to fight these Elementals before they destroy our world as they did his. After joining forces with Spider-Man (here named "Night Monkey" to avoid any connection to Peter Parker), Parker transfers control of EDITH to Mysterio.

With an hour to go, you know this is not the brightest of ideas.

We quickly find that Beck is in truth a bitter ex-employee of Stark Industries who has joined forces with other ex-employees for a master plan to masquerade as a hero by faking attacks. Now that he has EDITH, he can create the largest monster to fight and take on the new mantle of Ultimate Superhero.

With MJ having figured out Peter Parker is Spider-Man, it is now up to him along with his appropriately if illogical multicultural group to stop Mysterio.

For those interested, there is a scene where The Daily Bugle.Net's J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) outs Peter Parker as Spider-Man.

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I have often said that I can "get" where a film is going or what it aims for yet not be on board with it. Spider-Man: Far From Home is one such film. I know it wants to be a mashup of teen comedy and Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, but I found so much of it so idiotic I wanted to throw the remote at the screen ten minutes into it. Maybe it's a generational thing, but why choose Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You for an In Memoriam montage over Sarah McLachlan's I Will Remember You or Angel or even Puff Daddy/Faith Evans I'll Be Missing You?

Maybe Celine Dion's satanic Trashtanic Lust Theme My Heart Will Go On would have been better, but now I digress.

I flat-out refuse to believe that in any universe that Betty and Ned would be in any kind of relationship. That's something out of Eurotrip, but that was meant to be idiotic. Nothing suggests that our Tracy Flick clone would want to be anywhere near someone as stupid as Ned, let alone be both erotically and emotionally enthralled with him. As played by Batalon and Rice, they didn't bother to try to make it believable, as if we all knew it was false, a joke. Maybe that's what MCU fanboys want but it really distresses me that people ask so little of their films.

Same goes for the love triangle of Peter, MJ and Brad. Why are Peter and Brad so besotted with someone who has no defining characteristic but her scowl? You knew what would happen when Brad walked in to see a pantless Peter and a hot European woman together. It is too lazy a setup. The film had nothing for Revolori to do. He doesn't convince anyone that he is a super Spider-Man fan or a Peter Parker hater. His performance, of what I can remember, is of him screaming more than Fay Wray in King Kong. His take on Flash is nowhere near interesting enough to inspire anyone to follow him on social media.

It's not entirely his fault: the screenplay gives him nothing to work with.

Image result for spider man far from homeAs a side note, I'm puzzled on the casting. I know Far From Home wants to be multicultural almost to the point of parody, and one can admire their efforts for diversity. However, why keep the character's original names? You cast a Filipino, a Guatemalan and a Chinese as Ned, Flash and Brad respectively and specifically to have diversity, so why not just change their names to reflect that? It just seems so peculiar to me to go out of your way to have a diverse cast only to pull back and keep the very Anglo/WASP names.

Gyllenhaal looked like he was having fun camping it up for all its worth as Mysterio, which is different from Jackson't totally bored take on Fury. I suppose after failing to attract the Academy's attention via psychological thriller (Nightcrawler), arthouse cinema in dual roles (Nocturnal Animals), physical transformation (Southpaw) and "inspirational biopic" (Stronger), he just wants to take the money and run. One doesn't need to be well-versed in Marvel mythos to know this Mysterio is a villain masquerading as a hero.

For better or worse, on seeing him in Venice, the first thing that came to mind was Edna Mode's declaration of "NO CAPES!" when he's fighting the Water Elemental. I genuinely thought Far From Home was taking inspiration from The Incredibles' Syndrome in the fake superhero story. I know the film is also a comedy, but was Mysterio/Syndrome supposed to be that silly?

Not that this bit of dialogue wasn't already silly. As the kids look on, someone says, "Who's that guy? (bringing back memories of Grease 2). "I don't know, but he's kicking that water's ass!", is the reply. I hope that exchange was meant to cause laughter.

I suppose it was nice to see actors from previous MCU films pop up, but unlike the fanboys I have never bothered to remember the smorgasbord of bit players.

Far From Home also echoes Spider-Man 2 in its theme of whether Peter Parker will be a superhero or a regular person. Even though I was not won over by Spider-Man 2, I do think it is better at tackling this theme. I think it is because Spider-Man 2 takes this more serious than the overtly jokey Far From Home. That joke extends to Holland's performance, where he is dead-set on convincing me that Peter Parker is a moron, forever afraid of talking to women, reacting to silly situations and being completely clueless on everything save mimicking Stark's technical abilities.

To be fair, at least they changed his "REALLY OLD MOVIE" bit to now misidentifying music. As "Mr. Hogan" (Peter stubbornly insists on addressing every adult as such) plays Back in Black, Peter perks up. "I love Led Zeppelin," he announces. Can't wait for him to go on about "THAT REALLY OLD SINGER, BIGGIE SMALLS" in Spider-Man: You Can't Go Home Again.

The more I watched Far From Home, the more I began to genuinely believe this film was made for four-year-olds.

I just don't care. I just don't care.

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Black Widow

DECISION: D-

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Charlie's Angels (2019): A Review

CHARLIE'S ANGELS

I never saw the 2000 film adaptation of the Charlie's Angels television series, nor the 2003 sequel though I have seen a few episodes of the 1970's series. Now with this reboot, I am at a loss to understand why writer/director/producer/actress Elizabeth Banks is so thoroughly convinced that misandry is equivalent to female empowerment. Charlie's Angels is disorganized and slightly boring with no reason for being apart from telling the world how terrible men are.

Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) is an engineer at Brock Enterprises who has serious concerns about Calisto, a revolutionary electrical power system that can be weaponized to kill. She is overruled in presenting her concerns to CEO Alexander Brock (Sam Clafin) by her mansplaining sexist boss Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon).

In need of help, Elena is shepherded towards the Angels of the Townsend Agency, an international security agency with an all-female agent crew. A master assassin named Hodak (Jonathan Tucker) is assigned to assassinate Elena but she is rescued by two Angels: the wild Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and the more methodical Jane (Ella Balinska). Aided by "Bosley 342" (Banks), Elena finds herself something of an Angel herself as she now works with them to find Calisto prototypes and reprogram them to make them incapable of being used to cause strokes or heart attacks, the perfect assassination weapon.

There's evil afoot though, as there is a mole within the Townsend Agency. Could it be Bosley 342? Could it be John Bosley (Patrick Stewart), the original Bosley recently retired from the agency whose name became a rank in the organization? The trio travel the world from Istanbul to the south of France to stop Calisto and the evil men bent on destruction.

Image result for charlie's angels 2019Elizabeth Banks is someone whose work I am not too familiar with. As such I can't say whether she is a good actress, a good writer or a good director based solely on one film. I can say that this effort is confused and at times nonsensical. As I kept watching, I was forever puzzled as to why Elena was essentially playing Angel when she had little to no training. Why they opted to throw someone as inexperienced as Elena into life and death situations seemed strange to me.

Granted, perhaps that was explained during the time I struggled to stay awake, but given that was when the Angels were fighting in a quarry I don't see how we ever got a reasonable explanation.

Moreover, Charlie's Angels seems to tie itself into needless knots. It's one thing to have Jacklyn Smith make a cameo appearance at the end, but why did Banks and company decide to tie Patrick Stewart's John Bosley into both the television and 2000/2003 film versions too via digitally-altered photographs? Why not just start fresh?

That curiosity is compounded by the bloat Charlie's Angels has. Take the character of Langston (Noah Centineo). He appears briefly in one scene as a scientist within Brock Enterprises who helps Jane escape when she, Sabina and Elena disguise their way into the corporate offices to find Calisto. We then see him as the traitor's prisoner, shocking Elena. However, there is not enough time to establish him as a character of interest. One could argue we should be concerned for Langston because his life is in danger, but to be fair Charlie's Angels could have picked any random person to use as a human shield.

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In other words, Langston is superfluous to Charlie's Angels, so why would anyone bother to care if he and Jane start a relationship given they've had at most ten minutes together?

The twists Charlie's Angels wants to give us as to who the traitor is seems set on being less red herrings and more oddball. The film slogs its way into giving us a 'shocking' twist that isn't all that shocking and that again given the almost 'blink-and-you-miss-it' appearance almost a bit of a cheat.

This trio of Angels does not seem to have that 'sisterhood' it wants us to believe it has. They never really gel as a group, let alone as friends. Scott is the best of the lot, as her Elena was both relatable and even had moments of humor as she handled the situations she faced. Balinska is also quite good as Jane to where you wouldn't mind a film with just her as the sole lead. She does much better than the material, though she is given more to do.

Stewart's take on some kind of quippy wild-child is so forced that it is not believable. Her Sabina comes across as almost inept, more interested in rattling bad one-liners than in being a whip-smart secret agent. I keep getting told how Stewart is this exceptional actress (Actress of the Decade according to the Hollywood Critics Association). Charlie's Angels does not provide evidence that she is the Actress of the Month, let alone entire Decade.

Image result for charlie's angels 2019It seems for a film that has women at the forefront it's the men who seem to be having the most fun. Stewart and Clafin are camping it up for all its worth as the original Bosley and simultaneously evil and dimwitted corporate executive. To be fair, Clafin would never make my Actor of the Decade shortlist, but he seemed to be having a wild time playing a vaguely-Sir Richard Branson-type billionaire. Stewart too appeared to having a hoot as the nefarious former Townsend Agency second in command.

I had mentioned how Charlie's Angels has a heart of misandry in it. Right from the get-go when we hear in voiceover how "women can do exactly the same thing men can", the film seems more interested in lecturing the viewer than in entertaining viewers of either gender. The idea that men dismiss women due to their sexism was already covered in of all things The Hustle, but that was a comedy...of sorts. We have a scene where Elena's evil boss is both dismissive of her intelligence (despite her being crucial to Calisto's creation) and "mansplaining" how she was wrong. There's a moment when a Brock security guard advises a disguised Elena to "smile more".

Banks doubled and tripled down on this view of men being perpetually at war with women, which she's free to do. However, why work so hard to tell potential audience members you're trying to bring in that they are horrible just by existing?

Charlie's Angels is not fun or insightful. A sequel, let alone a whole new franchise is doubtful, which is a shame for Scott and Balinska. Without the burdens of Stewart and Banks, perhaps we could see the rise of better Angels.

DECISION: F

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: A Review (Review #1330)

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been appropriately quixotic as it went from conception to a limited release in the United States (one-night-only if I understand things correctly). The various starts and stops to Terry Gilliam's film were sometimes so oddball that the film threatened to become his own The Other Side of the Wind. Now however, after a nearly twenty year odyssey, we have at last the film itself.

It wasn't worth the wait.

Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver) is filming a commercial in Spain, using the literary character of Don Quixote as part of the campaign. Toby finds his life and career hampered in particular by "The Boss" (Stellan Skarsgard), who keeps pushing Toby. The Boss asks Toby to 'watch' his luscious wife Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), which to Jacqui means having sex. The Boss accidentally also reintroduces Toby to a long-lost student film he made, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote".

Seeing his old avant-garde black-and-white student film sparks memories of his youthful cinematic passion and of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the pretty waitress he cast as Dulcinea. Impulsively he rushes to "Los Suenos", the village where he shot his film to see about his cast of non-professionals.

It's here that he discovers Angelica has left for the big city of Madrid and turned into what his father calls "a whore". He also finds that the simple shoemaker he had cast as the perfect Quixote is now bonkers, believing him to be THE Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce). Real name Javier, Quixote through a series of unfortunate events makes Toby his Sancho Panza, as they begin a bizarre odyssey that leads them back to Toby's abandoned commercial and ultimately his embrace as the new Man of La Mancha.

Image result for the man who killed don quixoteI thought that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote drew inspiration from Fellini's 8 & 1/2 as both revolve around directors who are struggling artistically. It may also draw from director and co-writer Terry Gilliam's own cinematic struggles (co-writing with Tony Grisoni). That struggle between artistic vision and commercial demands, between crafting art and making money, those themes are worth exploring.

In a curious way, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may be a true portrait of someone Quixote-like as Gilliam, maker of esoteric wonders who fights to finance his unique vision. No truer yet symbolic figure in filmmaking is there that in Russian billionaire Alexi Miiskin (Jordi Molla), who takes advantage of Javier's insanity for his court's amusement. One can quibble on the fact that the film cast a Spaniard to play a Russian and an Englishman to play a Spaniard, but there it is.

As I kept watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote though, my main thought was that while I "get" what they are going for I was never on board with it. Part of it is length: the film is a punishing 132 minutes, and you feel things starting to drag, particularly once Quixote and Toby arrive at the castle. You've got masked villains, heroes falling out of windows and few if any people concerned that an old man plunged to his death.

Part of it also is in moments where I asked if the film had an actual plot. Toby stumbling onto Angelica, now Alexi's mistress, while she bathes at a waterfall is too outlandish. Seeing Adam Driver as Toby break out into an Eddie Cantor impression as part of an effort to convince Quixote that he isn't "an enchanter" is almost sad.

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I think the two lead performances were excellent. Pryce seems made to play a genuine Don Quixote, his sincerity and guileless as our noble man never flags or wavers. You believe Javier's initial hesitancy in flashbacks to playing Don Quixote and his total embrace that he is Don Quixote no matter how bonkers he is. You can laugh at him but also feel genuine warmth and protective towards him as he is made a fool.

Driver's Toby was in equal turns frustrated realist and youthful idealist, someone who could be lured by the luscious Jacqui while perpetually finding himself in oddball situations despite his best intentions. While I compliment Driver's surprisingly strong Spanish, I do question why for someone who speaks it well he at one point says, "Mi madre es en la basura", which translates as a bungled "My mother is in the trash".

It's bungled because "es" for "is" should mean 'being' not 'located'. If he means she is literally "in the trash" it would be "esta". Hopefully he doesn't mean to say "My mother IS trash", which would be "Mi madre es (la) basura". Well, to be fair what can be expected of people who think "Latinx" is a genuine word. Yet I digress.

It is not the performances themselves that are at fault. I think it is that the film can never decide to be either total flight of fancy or grounded in reality. This push-pull proves tiresome, and you feel by the end everyone is spinning wheels rather than moving forward. There's a scene where we see subtitles as Toby and Raul, Angelica's father, are speaking, then Toby announces "we don't need these" and swipes the subtitles away.

This pretty much sums up the struggle the film has between being fantasy and reality. Also, just a final Spanish note: the village's name of "Los Suenos" translates to "The Dreams", so there's that.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could have been a great allegory on the creative process and the struggle between the artistic and the commercial. It just wandered too far out to fully embrace, but at least Gilliam got the film out of his system after more than a decade-plus, so that's something. 



DECISION: D+

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Last Christmas: A Review



LAST CHRISTMAS

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas Day Christmas Film review. Each December 25, I look at a Yuletide-themed film and this year we have Last Christmas.

I imagine that while most people know the chorus to Wham!'s Last Christmas, few know the entire song verbatim. The film Last Christmas is said to be 'inspired' by the music of the late George Michael, but it's more inspired by one song, which if memory serves correct is played in some way at least four times. Last Christmas is mercifully not terrible, but it is bad, continuing a run of poor holiday films that push themselves on audiences.

In 1999 Yugoslavia little Katrina sings like an angel, but in 2017 Croatian refugee Katrina or "Kate" (Emilia Clarke) is floundering. A drunken slut with vague ideas about being a singer, she jumps from one-night stand to one-night stand, crashing at whatever friend's couch that she hasn't managed to alienate. Kate works at a Christmas-themed shop open all year run by a woman calling herself "Santa" (Michelle Yeoh). Always dressed like an elf, Kate is openly miserable.

Image result for last christmas movieThere is a reason for her misery: she had a heart condition requiring a transplant but she is thoroughly careless in how she manages her health and life. Kate also hates her mother Petra (screenwriter Emma Thompson) and resents her more successful older sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), though she's fond of her father Ivan (Boris Isakovic). And then she meets Tom (Henry Golding). He's fun, wacky and more important, interested in her. Interested enough to pursue our dour Kate, who eventually falls for his charms.

Despite herself, Kate starts growing as a person under Tom's mentorship. She stops drinking and picking up men. She becomes an unofficial matchmaker for Santa. She slips into volunteering at a homeless shelter, in particular by singing in front of it to raise money. After outing Marta as a lesbian, she starts making amends. She even starts reaching out to Petra and helps her become less reclusive and depressed despite the bigotry of Brexit.

Kate, however, still can't figure out why Tom disappears for days on end and is hard to find. It isn't until she goes back to his flat that she makes a shocking discovery: that 'last Christmas' it was Tom who literally gave her his heart when he was killed in a bicycle accident. With her ghostly romance over, Kate can now be a better person.

Image result for last christmas movie"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I'll give to someone special". It's one thing to draw inspiration from George Michael's lyrics. It's another when you use them as the plot itself. Last Christmas, Tom gave Kate his heart but the very next day (or at least following surgery) she threw it away (with booze and boys). This year, to save her from tears, she'll give it to someone special: her family, her friends, her fellow humans.

Is it a strange thing that Last Christmas appears to be as if someone decided to make a romantic comedy out of A Beautiful Mind? At least John Nash had the "excuse" that he was schizophrenic, but was Kate just bonkers? Her entire romance was a delusion, but if that wasn't already bad enough one wonders exactly how did Kate know who Tom was. Do people routinely know the name and life-story of those whom they received organs from? I figure Thompson (cowriting with Bryony Kimmings) and director Paul Feig thought this would be a heartbreaking & touching twist, but it ends up making Kate look crazy.

Still, a little part of me does wish there had been a sex scene between Kate and Tom. Seeing it revisited after discovering Tom was already dead when he and Kate met would have been wild! How would Kate end up having sex with a figment of her imagination?

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I'm sure everyone meant well, but Last Christmas is thoroughly unbalanced. The relationship between Santa and Kate is contradictory. At times Santa and Kate appear to be almost besties. At other times Santa appears to be unaware of Kate's name: more than once she refers to Kate as "Elf". The subplot of Santa's own romance seems from another film altogether, and moreover is so overtly overplayed as to make one wonder if they were aiming for farce.

It's a terrible disservice to Yeoh, who comes across as a combination Dragon Lady stereotype and idiot. Despite Kate's irresponsibility in not locking the shop which results in a robbery, Santa won't fire her. Again sometimes she's her BFF, sometimes she's her tyrannical boss.

I never saw Game of Thrones, but I did see Me Before You and am thoroughly puzzled as to why Emilia Clarke is constantly pushed at me as this 'bubbly' personality. To her credit Kate did grow as a character but Clarke's efforts to be all adorkable grew tiresome, and her disheveled manner wasn't that good either. Golding was pleasant enough, but why Tom had to do these oddball dance routines to woo Kate one can only guess at.

As a side note, and something that may be a bit too technical, I did wonder how Katrina, despite having come to Britain as at least a tween, has no Croatian accent. Her older sister equally sounds quite British, or is Marta her younger sister? Thompson most certainly had an accent, making her sound like The Bride of Dracula and a way to throw in some anti-Brexit sentiments.

Last Christmas has such a ludicrous twist that I did literally burst out laughing, but on the whole I softened a bit to it. It's not good and illogical, but I suppose as far as bad Christmas movies go, Last Christmas will serve until Next Christmas. 

2012: Arthur Christmas
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2014: Prancer
2015: A Madea Christmas
2016: Batman Returns
2017 (Eve): Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
2017 (Day): The Man Who Invented Christmas
2018: Christmas With the Kranks


DECISION: C-

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Little Women (1994): A Review

LITTLE WOMEN (1994)

The 1994 remake of Little Women has a few unique features: it is the first film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's celebrated novel to be produced, written and directed by a woman. It is also the first time where two actresses have played one of the March sisters. This version, made twenty fives after the last cinematic take on Alcott's novel, is probably the best known to the general public as it is the most recent. Little Women has a greater focus on the status of women in this time period, but it still keeps to the warmth and love this story is long associated with.

As the Civil War rages on, Concord is still quite quiet. The four March sisters do pray their father does return safe, but for now the formerly wealthy family soldiers on. Meg (Trini Alvarado), the oldest, looks aghast sometimes at her more boisterous and outspoken sister Jo (Winona Ryder). Jo is a fierce intellect with dreams of being a writer. Their younger sister Beth (Claire Danes) is a soft, quiet figure, while the youngest Amy (Kirsten Dunst as a child, Samantha Mathis as an adult) would like the finer things in life.

Watched over by their strong and loving mother, lovingly called Marmee (Susan Sarandon), they keep watch over each other and those nearby. Among those nearby is Theodore Laurence, nicknamed both "Timmy" and "Laurie" (Christian Bale), their wealthy neighbor essentially exiled within the Laurence home. Laurie and Jo become friends, and soon Meg catches the eye of Laurie's tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz). There are fires and fights, love and loss within the March home as they navigate through life.

With Meg and John now married and Beth weak from her bout with scarlet fever, Jo feels adrift, especially after turning down Laurie's marriage proposal. Encouraged by Marmee, she goes to New York City to pursue both employment and her literary career. Her disappointment in not going to Europe with their Great-Aunt March (Mary Wickes) is mitigated by Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), a German intellectual and they fall in love. Jo, however, still turns out potboilers for cash despite "Friedrich" advising she can do better.

More loss and joy comes to the Marches, until with now Laurie and Amy married, Meg with children and Beth having died, Jo channels her grief into her new work, "Little Women", and finds true love at last.

Image result for little women 1994It is unfair to compare previous versions of Little Women while evaluating another version, but I could not help notice how different this version was to the two previous film adaptations in many ways: structure, characters, scenes. Those actual comparisons are for another time, but I do find it a bit hard not to have them populate the back of my mind.

Little Women does a fine job in portraying the differences between the March sisters. It gives a great emphasis on Jo as an intellectual versus just being a tomboy. Ryder, aided by director Gillian Anderson, puts a sharp focus on Jo's intelligence and artistic life. She is not so much rough-and-tumble as she is bright, articulate and starved for advancement on her own terms. Ryder gives an excellent and beautiful performance as Jo, one who is dearly attached to her sisters and has such a strong sense of equality she does not understand why her siblings would be horrified at having the male Laurie join in their theatricals. She is bright and witty, gentle and intelligent, a woman for all seasons.

This Jo is seen and heard in voiceover (curiously, another first in the adaptations) openly discussing her frustration at not being able to go to college because of her sex. She partakes in salons where she puts her own views on suffrage for the men to consider: women should get the vote not because they are 'more moral' than men but because they are citizens. Jo talks on transcendentalism with Bhaer, a mutual interest to them.

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In short, this Jo is not so much flouting the conventions of society but pushing for equality in it. She is helped by Marmee, who herself mentions that she believes females should have as much physical exertion as men. Sarandon balances being strong and gentle as "Abigail" (Marmee's actual name, which to my mind is the first time I've heard it used in any adaptation). She is loving and warm, moving when she must see Beth at death's door, and graceful and elegant when comforting her 'little women'. I think it one of Sarandon's best performances.

Claire Danes and Trini Alvarado as the gentle Beth and more sophisticated but aware Meg also did fine work, balancing the humor with the heartache. Danes in particular had a quiet vulnerability as our doomed character. It's hard to get a hold on Amy as two actresses played the role, but it's a credit to all involved: Dunst, Mathis, Anderson and screenwriter Robin Swicord that it never felt like a complete jolt. It does look a bit peculiar that Laurie does not seem to age much while Amy shifts from tween to full woman, making his pledge to 'kiss her before she dies' almost predatory.

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Bale's Laurie was quite gentle at the beginning, more wastrel later on. I could not shake the idea that this seemed a bit too much to believe Jo's rejection would so devastate Laurie he'd turn into a near-drunk playboy, but on the whole he did well in the role. Less so was Byrne, whose German accent sounded like an Irishman trying out his Bela Lugosi impression. About twenty years older than Ryder, Byrne seemed too soft-spoken as Bhaer, with none of the fire within to spark her intellectual or physical fire.

One aspect I don't think worked was with Aunt March. Mary Wickes in a very small role was delightful, but therein lies the trouble. She seemed too gentle and soft to play the Aunt March as I understood her to be: a bit gruff and tyrannical but not without some heart. Despite Jo's protests the Aunt March as played by Wickes doesn't seem the type to turn down an offer to help Marmee get to Washington. I also found that some of the elements did not fully work for me, such as whatever connection Beth and Mr. Laurence (John Neville) had with the piano.

Little Women also benefits from Thomas Newman's beautiful score, which earned the film one of its three Academy Award nominations, along with Colleen Atwood's costume designs.

Little Women is a sharp, beautiful and elegant film. It's curious that a lot of Little Women differs from my memories of past Little Women, but change is inevitable. With wonderful performances from the cast, in particular Ryder and Sarandon, this Little Women will charm, delight and inspire generations of little women to pursue their dreams while not forgetting that the familial bonds are where we should draw our strength.
   
DECISION: B+

Little Women Retrospective: An Introduction
Little Women: 1933
Little Women: 1949
Little Women: 1978
Little Women: 2019
Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions

Sunday, December 22, 2019

1917: A Review


1917

While there have been many films chronicling World War II, the First World War has produced a few cinematic masterpieces as well. It's a curious thing that World War I is not as well-remembered given that in essence, this war shaped the Twentieth Century. 1917 is a new film detailing two horrific days near the war's end with the cinematic technique of looking as if shot in one long take. With a standout performance and peppered with cameos from some of Britain's finest actors, 1917 while not without flaws is still exceptional filmmaking.

April 6, 1917. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Stanton) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given an important assignment. They must travel across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message to call off a planned attack as the British military has found it's a German trap. Among those who may be killed in this attack is Blake's brother, and General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of the many cameos), tells them if they fail, thousands will needlessly die.

The rest of 1917 is of their journey across No Man's Land, the abandoned German trenches, a ruined French farm and later a ruined French village to get there in time. Not everyone makes it through this harrowing day. They encounter a cynical Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott), a helpful but wary Captain Smith (Mark Strong) until finally reaching both the arrogant Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Lieutenant Blake (Richard Madden). Now April 7, 1917, the survivor of this mission can rest as his mission is accomplished, pausing to look at the pictures of his own family and sweetheart with the message "Come back to me" on the back, aware that this hope is carried by so many.

Image result for 1917 movie1917 is deliberately made to look as if it is one long shot, a technique used by Birdman a few years ago. While Birdman's one long shot manner I think was made to enhance the deliberate artifice of its story, 1917 uses it to enhance the time pressure, a sense that these men have to keep moving.

This technique inevitably leads to a lot of 'walk-and-talk', where characters routinely have to have conversations while sprinting. It's not a technique I'm particularly fond of, as it at times prevents us from seeing the actors' faces or seeing more than one actor for long periods of time. There obviously was cutting and it would not surprise me if 1917 won Best Editing owing to how skillfully Lee Smith tied things together.

The most obvious cut is when the messenger arrives at the ruined French town. After shooting at the German who had been shooting at him the messenger himself is shot. As he flies down the stairs the screen goes black, and this is the only time in 1917 that there is any pause, coming in an hour and six minutes into the film.

When it comes to the 'walk-and-talk' style again I am not won over by it. It could mask the fact that we are given the most basic points about the various characters, in particular Schoefield and Lance Corporal Blake. Granted, as 1917 takes place over only two days we are not going to dive into their life stories and we don't need to pause to explore the others as Firth, Scott, Strong, Cumberbatch and Madden are on screen for perhaps a total of fifteen minutes combined (and I think I'm being generous).

Related imageDespite was is meant as the urgency of getting the message on time to save Blake's brother, I was not convinced there was that urgency. I can't quite place my finger on it, but 1917 did not feel like a desperate race-against-time film.

That nowhere means that I thought 1917 was terrible. Far from it: it is a bravura piece of filmmaking though perhaps one where director Sam Mendes (inspired by his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes' wartime experiences) was more invested in technique than character. However, as the film is primarily Chapman and MacKay's show, they demonstrate quite strong performances. Their final scene together is quite moving and well-acted, and one would be hard-pressed not to feel the agony and sadness of it all.

MacKay's interaction with Claire Duburcq as a terrified French woman caring for an orphan in the besieged village is also quite effective acting-wise. Duburcq is the only female in 1917, putting it one female ahead of another World War I-centered film, Lawrence of Arabia. It is a bit puzzling as to how they communicate so well given she speaks almost no English and he no French. My impression is that Schoefield at least understood French given he responded correctly to the woman's queries, but it is slightly unclear.

1917 also has two exceptionally strong elements in its corner. First is Roger Deakins' amazing cinematography, pushed greater by the almost balletic camera work. The chaos and fighting at the French village is almost breathtakingly beautiful, or as beautiful as war can be made. The other element is Thomas Newman's score, pulsating with tension and danger, even if sometimes it did resort to the 'long violin strings' to push tension if memory serves correct.

1917 is graphic: large rats and gruesome corpses populate the film. The film is an exceptional piece of cinema, even if to my mind overpraised. My own views is that All Quiet on the Western Front is far superior to 1917 as both a World War I film and as cinema. That being said, 1917 is still one of the best films of 2019.

DECISION: B+

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Richard Jewell: A Review

RICHARD JEWELL

At age 89 Clint Eastwood continues to showcase his mastery of filmmaking with Richard Jewell, the biopic on the Georgia security guard caught in the maelstrom of false accusations by a voracious press. The film itself got caught up in a maelstrom over how it portrayed other real-life figures, and those issues should not be ignored. However, as a film Richard Jewell has standout performances and an engaging story that leaves the viewer simultaneously horrified and mystified by the participants' reactions.

In 1986 Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is an office clerk in a law office with dreams of joining law enforcement. One attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) takes a shine to the apparently simple Jewell. Ten years later, Jewell has been fired from his security guard job at a college owing to his over-enthusiasm for his job, but there's good news. The Olympic Games are coming to Atlanta, and Jewell has been employed as one of the thousands of security for the Games.

With the support of his mother Barbara better known as Bobbi (Kathy Bates), Jewell takes to his job like duck to water. His detailed manner, however, is at odds with the more lax attitude of his fellow private security guards and the Atlanta Police, who do not share Jewell's laser-like devotion. Jewell notices an unguarded backpack and following procedure insists on having the police come. Unbeknownst to them all, a bomb threat had been called for Centennial Park, and the APD find that Jewell had found a bomb that goes off.

Jewell is immediately hailed as a hero, reluctantly giving interviews and even offered a book deal. His concern over the book deal causes him to contact Bryant, now struggling in private practice. Soon, however, the FBI in particular Agents Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Bennett (Ian Gomez) zero in on Jewell himself being the Centennial Park bomber. They've convinced themselves that the unmarried still-living-with Mom portly white man with a law enforcement fixation fits the profile of 'the false hero'. Jewell's past is starting to catch up to him, as is the aggressive manner of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Cathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).

Image result for richard jewell movieUsing her feminine wiles to pump information out of her old flame Shaw, Scruggs' scoop of the FBI investigating Jewell as the bomber turns Richard and Bobbi's life upside down. Hounded by the press and the FBI, Bryant now becomes his attorney to clear his name. Jewell does not help his case by insisting on 'cooperating' with the FBI in an odd idea that 'he is law enforcement too', seemingly oblivious to how much contempt both Shaw and Scruggs have for him.

Richard finally appear to wake up to the depths of the crisis. Scruggs too realizes too late that the heavyset Jewell could not have made the run from his post to the payphone calling in the bomb threat, but by now the FBI is seeking evidence to fit their case against Jewell versus seeking evidence on the bombing. It isn't until 88 days later that the FBI finally but begrudgingly admits defeat in linking Jewell to the bombing and six years later when they find the real bomber. 

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Richard Jewell has one of the best performances of the year in Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell. As played by Hauser, Jewell is a straightforward, decent man whose major flaw is his excessive zeal for his job. His slow Southern drawl and almost simple manner suggest a man who may come across as dim, but Hauser is never cartoonish or makes Jewell look like an imbecile. Instead, Hauser makes Jewell into someone far too honest and thorough, one who wants to help but is sadly oblivious to how his actions end up hurting him.

As the FBI search his house he holds onto perhaps a naive idea that they are on the same team. "I'm law enforcement too," he tells Shaw and Bennett, and the fact that he is absolutely convinced of this despite the FBI's mixture of arrogance and persecution leaves one both frustrated and desperate for him. Jewell is not a dumb man: when Bryant is shocked at the number of firearms he possesses, Jewell matter-of-factually replies, "This IS Georgia", puzzled that anyone would think someone having many guns in their home would suggest a domestic terrorist.

Hauser, however, has a realization at the end that he is seen as a suspect not due to any evidence against him but because of who he is: middle-aged, single, white, male. As he fits a stereotype the press and the FBI hold to be essentially beneath them, they believe he is guilty merely by being himself. When he finally and painfully confronts Shaw's interrogation, we see a man crushing his almost hero-worship of the FBI. Billy Ray's screenplay does allow a moment of lightness when Jewell insists on pointing out that despite the FBI's suggestion he is not a homosexual, let alone had any "boyfriend" as an accomplice.

Image result for richard jewell movieOn the whole though, Paul Walter Hauser's performance is authentic, sincere and immersive. Sam Rockwell too as the fiery and more rational Watson Bryant excels, his mix of fire and fury with the exasperation Jewell causes him showcasing a man passionate to help someone who keeps making messes. It's a curious thing that Richard Jewell has been portrayed as some right-wing screed because to me the film is more liberal to libertarian than conservative.

We see that Bryant has a slogan in his office: "I fear the government more than I fear terrorism". Bryant is nowhere near a conservative figure, and I think his motives in fighting the FBI, apart from knowing Jewell's true nature, is the knowledge that the government is using its full force to railroad an innocent man for something they know he didn't do. As Bryant's Girl Friday and eventual wife, the Russian immigrant Nadya (Nina Arianda) tells him when he reads the newspaper, "In my country, when government says you're guilty you know they're innocent".

Kathy Bates equally does excellent work as Bobbi, another victim of the press and FBI's determination to pin the crime on her son. When, via archival footage, she sees Tom Brokaw (whom she fancies) report as fact that the FBI has enough evidence to indict and just need enough evidence to convict, she says almost to herself, "Why would Tom Brokaw say those things about you?". The disbelief and genuine pain of hearing a man she trusted unequivocally call her son a terrorist all but breaks your heart, as her tearful press conference where she begs then-President Clinton for help in clearing Jewell's name.

Controversy has erupted over Wilde's portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the Journal-Constitution reporter who died in 2001, as a sex-crazed harpy. While the film's theme of how to the press a scoop is more important than the truth is important, there is some merit to the negative reaction over Scruggs' portrayal, more so given she is not alive to defend herself. That being said, Scruggs does have something of a redemptive moment when she realizes Jewell was incapable of committing the bombing but could not dissuade her former lover Shaw's idea of his guilt. Her tearful reaction at Bobbi's press conference is as close as the film gets to giving her a moment of humanity and regret.

This element could have been toned down in retrospect.

Richard Jewell is a showcase to Eastwood's skills as a director, not just in the performances he draws from his cast but in how the film moves. The Centennial Park bombing is shocking but not graphic, and he captures the frenzy of the press hounding of Jewell almost in a cinema-verite manner.

Richard Jewell is a thoughtful film on how the press and the government can wield its enormous influence and power to go after small targets. A portrait of a man too guileless and trusting for his own good, it moves the viewer to realize that in the wrong hands a false charge and wild speculation can be just as dangerous as a literal bomb, if not as deadly.

1962-2007

DECISION: A-

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Toy Story 4: A Review (Review #1325)


TOY STORY 4

I have long held that a Part 3 of any film series will be either a disaster or a harbinger of a greater disaster. The Toy Story franchise mercifully has proven me wrong. Toy Story 3 was a beautiful film, and Toy Story 4 is, well, pleasant. That is not to say that I thought Toy Story 4 was the equal to the previous Toy Story films. It was moving at the end but something about it just didn't sit well with me.

Woody (Tom Hanks) feels consistently left out because Bonnie, his newest child, does not play with him as often as she does the others ranging from cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) to Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). However, still with the belief that he is there for his child, Woody goes rogue in sneaking into Bonnie's backpack despite the objections of Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), the unofficial leader of Bonnie's toys.

To cope with her separation anxiety in kindergarten, Bonnie creates a figure out of a spork that she names "Forky" (Tony Hale). Forky does not see himself as a toy but as trash and keeps trying to throw himself into the trash, with Woody forever rescuing him and try to convince him he is not trash but a toy. Forky's existentialist crisis reaches a fever pitch when he manages to throw himself out of the family's RV, with Woody going right after.

Image result for toy story 4From here, circumstances have Woody and Forky going to an antique shop where they deal with the semi-villainous Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has designs on Woody's voice box to replace her broken one. She and her minion ventriloquist dolls cause them havoc. Woody's only comfort is in reuniting with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain figure he knew, loved and lost.

Bo is now a lost toy, but she's happy in her new life and is a toy rescuer. Somewhat reluctantly, she agrees to help Woody rescue Forky. Buzz mounts his own rescue efforts, which land him with Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele). They too end up joining Bo, Woody and Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) to make a daring rescue and fight Gabby Gabby. Ultimately though, we see that even semi-villains cry and can find their own way to be loved. That too goes with Woody, who learns to let go and seek out a new purpose.

Toy Story 4 is quite beautiful in terms of animation. More than once I found myself writing "beautiful animation", though for some reason the humans did look a bit off to me. As I think on Toy Story 4, I find myself surprised at how dark it is. You have Woody willingly surrender his voice box, a lost child, and a toy perpetually attempting to commit suicide.

Moreover, I found that Toy Story 4 left a lot of the actual toys on the sidelines. It felt as if most of the toys were observers rather than participants. I can understand that given that Forky was at the forefront of the film, but the film just felt a little disjointed to me.

Image result for toy story 4Gabby Gabby was perhaps the most sympathetic villain the series has given us, and while it's nice to avoid a Stinky Pete/Lotso-type situation where the villain appears nice to start, I could not shake the idea that Toy Story 4 never really developed her.

I also wonder why Woody would opt to be a lost toy. I know it was to find a new purpose after Bonnie essentially tossed him aside, usually making Jessie the sheriff, but it just seemed to out-of-character for Woody to opt out of being someone's toy. From what I can remember, his whole raison d'etre was to be someone's toy, but now he chooses Bo over Bonnie or even a chance to be someone's toy. There may be reason, they may be logical, but something just did not feel right to me.

It's strange that even while I think many of the toys were sidelined, conversely they had far more interaction with humans than I've ever seen before, particularly when attempting to rescue Woody.

I wasn't won over by most of the new characters. Forky did grow on me a little, but his perpetual crises of existence started growing on my nerves. I felt Ducky and Bunny were meant to be a wisecracking duo but they came across as annoying, particularly when we had a montage of what they would do to get the cabinet key. I will admit I enjoyed Duke Caboom, his mix of fear and confidence along with his Canadian pride showing a nice comic side.

I am surprised that Randy Newman's score is not on the Oscar shortlist given how beautiful it was. It's curious that while I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away is the 'big' song, I found The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy better.

Toy Story 4 is good, quite good, with some beautiful animation and touching farewells all around. I just could not embrace it as I have the three previous films. 

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Little Women (1949): A Review

 LITTLE WOMEN (1949)

It's a curious thing that the 1949 remake of Little Women is scarcely remembered, especially compared to the 1933 original or the 1994 adaptation. Sandwiched between those two more popular versions, the 1949 Little Women suffers from a lack of notoriety. That's a shame because while this Little Women is not without some flaws, it is an equally charming film.

While their father fights in the Civil War, the four March sisters live life as well as they can. There's Meg (Janet Leigh), the oldest, more mature and ladylike. There's boisterous tomboy Jo (June Allyson), the snobbish Amy (Elizabeth Taylor) and gentle Beth (Margaret O'Brien), the youngest. Watched over by their mother, lovingly called Marmee (Mary Astor), the March sisters do their best under financially strained circumstances.

They're well-off enough to live next door to the wealthy Laurence family, and Jo catches the eye of young Laurie (Peter Lawford), the lonely grandson of the gruff but lovable Mr. Laurence (Sir C. Aubrey Smith). Jo yearns to be a writer, Amy wishes for a return to wealth and prestige, Meg to perhaps marry (and more perhaps marry well) while shy Beth loves playing the piano. There's joy and heartache, love and loss in the March home.

Finally, after Meg's marriage to Laurie's tutor Mr. Brooke (Richard Stapley) over the objections of the fierce and wealthy Aunt March (Lucille Watson) and Beth's bout with scarlet fever, Jo feels a bit adrift. Having turned down Laurie's marriage proposal, she opts to be a governess in New York City. There, Jo finds herself working alongside Professor Bhaer (Rossano Brazzi), who loves the arts and culture as she does.

More joys and sorrows await the March sisters, until with one gone and two married, Jo finds that perhaps she too will find love and contentment among an intellectual equal.

Image result for little women 1949It's a curious thing that Little Women has excellent performances from everyone save the central character. This is not to say that June Allyson gave a bad performance, though to be fair I have never been an Allyson fan apart from her Depend Undergarment ads. My view is that Allyson was trying too hard to be a spitfire but was a bit forced in her manner. It's as if she was told by director Mervin LeRoy to be a bit restrained while being feisty. She gave it a good go but Allyson never struck me as a tough but loving Jo.

It might be that she was 33 when attempting to play this teenage fireball, and in some scenes she ended up looking even older. When she returns from having cut her hair to earn extra money, I gasped and thought Allyson looked 300! She was twenty years older than O'Brien, fifteen years older than Taylor and ten years older than Leigh, who supposedly is her older sister. Again, Allyson gave it a good try but she was far too old for the part. The only March relations she was younger than was Astor as her mother, and that was only by eleven years!

Again, Allyson was either too forced or restrained as Jo, but to her credit she did have some wonderful moments such as when she and Laurie end any possibility of romance.

Another odd choice was in Brazzi making his American debut. Whatever possessed MGM to try and pass off this rather handsome Italian complete with Italian accent as a middle-aged, somewhat serious German? He did his best also, even if he was more Mediterranean charming than Teutonic austerity. 

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Much better were the other March sisters. Taylor easily disproved that she could not play any kind of comedy with her Amy, rattling off malapropisms and be simultaneously sweet and snobbish. Whether it's in her offering the Hummel babies pieces of popovers via a "one piece for you, one piece for me" method or being wildly over-the-top in Jo's play, Taylor is enchanting. She could also be touching, such as whenever she protects Beth from the mean-spirited things people say about the Marches.

O'Brien simply out-acts everyone else as this delightful, adorable, cute and ultimately doomed Beth. No one could cry on camera like Margaret O'Brien, and her final scene with Allyson where she openly accepts her impending death just about breaks your heart.

Janet Leigh too does well as Meg, longing for respectability and conflicted about her feelings for Mr. Brooke. Mary Astor, while having a smaller role, was gentleness and warmth itself as the wise and understanding Marmee. You wish all mothers were like that.

Lawford at first struck me as too big physically for Laurie, as if he'd have a hard time thinking he was unappealing to women. However, as Little Women went on he won me over, not completely but enough. Watson struck me as slightly more comical than I imagine Aunt March to be, but again not a bad performance.

Little Women is on the whole lovely, nostalgic and sweet. June Allyson may not make the best Jo March, but almost the rest of the cast elevates this tale of sibling love that should prove quite enchanting.

DECISION: B+

Little Women Retrospective: An Introduction
Little Women: 1933
Little Women: 1978
Little Women: 1994
Little Women: 2019
Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate. A Review

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

I have never been so attached to the Terminator franchise as to hold it as sacred. I think highly of The Terminator and hold that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not just among the best sequels ever made, but among the best films ever made.

After that though, the Terminator franchise has pretty much been useless. I never saw Rise of the Machines, but I did have the misfortune to see both Salvation and Genisys. Now Terminator: Dark Fate has come to hopefully if not mercifully put the final nail on the coffin of a series that really should not have been. On a multitude of levels Dark Fate is a disaster: a witless, soulless, useless cash-grab that spits on longtime fans while offering nothing.

After the events of Judgment Day, we find that it was all for naught, as the T-800 Terminator does end up killing the teenage John Connor, leaving a devastated Sarah Connor.

Twenty-two years later, we go to Mexico where a new Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is sent to kill Daniella "Dani" Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Arriving prior to the Rev-9 is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented soldier sent to protect Dani, who is obviously frightened and confused by the insanity around her. Having lost both her brother Diego (Diego Boneta) and her father to the Rev-9, Grace is not exactly doing a great job. Fortunately, enter Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to save Dani, having been given coordinates with the message "For John".

Image result for terminator dark fateGrace, recovering from her injuries, reluctantly joins forces with Sarah to stop the Rev-9. This means going to where Sarah's messages come from, coincidentally the same location tattooed on Grace. It also means smuggling Dani across the U.S./Mexico border to get to Laredo. Having done so and escaped the Rev-9 yet again, they encounter the secret messenger: the declining T-800 himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Despite her own anger and resentment towards the T-800, Sarah must join forces with her son's killer to save Dani, who is now the new Leader of the Resistance against not Skynet, but Legion, a new Artificial Intelligence at war with humanity. It leads to a climatic battle where not everyone survives, but for those who do, there may be new battles ahead.

For those who grew up embracing Terminator and Judgment Day, what benefit is there in seeing or knowing that John Connor does not actually lead anything and is killed off quickly? It was already bad enough turning John Connor into a villain in Genysis, but now the three credited screenwriters and five credited "Story By" writers have decided that whatever emotional investment fans had with John Connor was essentially a waste of time. The first two films had John Connor be the driving factor for the films: his mother and he himself needed saving to lead humanity to victory. Now by killing him off, we're left with, what exactly?

A bad jumble of both Terminator and Judgment Day, as if someone attempted to cobble together both films into one and put in a little woke narrative into it by showcasing 'strong women' and Hispanic leads. I, as a Mexican-American, have never once wondered 'Why can't or don't we have a Latino Terminator? Now THAT'S something I yearn to see!'

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My Mom, who is Mexican, made an interesting observation after seeing Dark Fate. "For being Mexicans, they speak A LOT of English," she quipped. I know what the phalanx of writers and director Tim Miller were going for: they wanted to showcase women in action films and have good ethnic diversity. That's all well and good, and something I support, but Dark Fate went about it the wrong way.

It is essentially a remake in all but name, but why try to piggyback on something that is not just already established but that works so brilliantly? Replacing the Austrian with the Hispanic, or replacing an Anglo male teen with a Latino woman does not mean you will get the exact same result.

Luna is miscast as the Rev-9 through no fault of his own. The thing is that he frankly is not intimidating on any level in Dark Fate. Truth be told, he seems almost too pleasant a person to be thought of as this cold, unstoppable force. For better or worse one's mind goes back to how Schwarzenegger could be intimidating in The Terminator with his massive build, monotone and monosyllabic speaking with a foreign, vaguely robotic voice. HE could convince someone he was an unstoppable, merciless killer.

Luna on the other hand looks far too human to be thought of as a brutal killing machine. He comes across as someone I would see at a cookout, not a shootout. This isn't to bash Luna per se or say he is not a good actor. This is to say that he looks more like someone who would be a victim of the Terminator than a Terminator himself. Granted, Robert Patrick is not a behemoth physically as Schwarzenegger is in Judgment Day, but he had a coldness in his T-1000 that Luna can't match in his Rev-9. Patrick looks like he could kill you. Luna looks like he'd rather hug you.

Related imageThe other two new leads are equally miscast. Davis was apparently directed to act in only one mode: angry. Curiously, she comes off more Terminator-like than Luna and it might have done wonders if they had switched roles. There is nothing to show that Grace would genuinely care about Dani as a person, let alone as the leader of The Resistance. Even worse, the idea that Reyes' Dani would rise to be this great leader is laughable. Again it's not because she's a woman or even an undocumented woman but because Dark Fate does not have her grow in strength or abilities, no leadership skills to have her rise to the occasion.

As a side note, wouldn't it have been easier and faster to have Dani already be an American? Why was it necessary to smuggle her across the border and be locked up in a Border Patrol center, unless it was to make some kind of point that made the film feel longer than its two-hour running time.

I'll say this about Diego Boneta. There's a reason I call him "Diego Bonita" and leave it at that.

Hamilton probably gave the best performance as the bitter yet determined Sarah Connor even if Dark Fate essentially crushes the great legacy of her character from both Terminator and Judgment Day. She had something to work with. Schwarzenegger didn't, and his efforts to make a human T-800 fell flat. It's one thing to try to rattle off quips like his explanation as to why he has so many weapons first with a long, convoluted one and then, "Also, this is Texas". It's another when you are fully aware you are trying to make the character funny.

It's astonishing how the visual effects in Dark Fate look so fake. Apart from the idea that the Rev-9 is able to separate itself from its human skin Dark Fate looks worse visually than Judgment Day which is twenty-eight years older. It's so obvious that it is CGI that it almost seems lazy.

Terminator: Dark Fate has nothing in it that is good. It wrecks already established canon to try and jump-start a new series with characters we don't care about. It has bad visual effects. It tries to build on past glories by recycling them in a new package. The future never looked so bleak and ultimately the Terminator franchise's dark fate is to be terminated with extreme prejudice.

DECISION: F-