Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

There have been a lot of Little Women film adaptations. Most of you who go to the movies or watch them on TV are probably most familiar with the 1994 adaptation that starred Winona Ryder; the little vampire from Interview With the Vampire; and Batman. I recall liking that one. I mean, it had Batman and Vampire Girl in it, for God’s sake. And the girl from Beetlejuice!

Now comes the umpteenth adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel—and it’s safe to say this one is the best adaptation of the story. Ever. Directed by rising directorial juggernaut Greta Gerwig (the magnificent, ultra-fantastic Lady Bird), who has a vision with her films that declares, “Hey, we aren’t screwing around here!” her third feature effort is a stunner across the board.

It’s a beautiful thing to look at due to some of the year’s best art direction and camerawork. It’s chock full of tremendous performances, and it’s written and directed by Gerwig, whose vision makes this an admirable update of a precious work.

Saoirse Ronan, who also starred in Lady Bird, headlines as Jo March, eldest sister of the March clan, which also includes Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Ronan, not surprisingly, makes the intrepid character of Jo her own; she’s a budding writer who is trying to get her ideas past a crusty editor (Tracy Letts, who had a damn fine 2019).

Gerwig, in a departure from past adaptations, focuses more on the girls as adults, with flashbacks to their younger days. As a result, she has chosen not to cast Amy with two different actresses. Pugh, who is well into her 20s, plays Amy at every stage, even falling through the ice as a pre-teen. I’d say that was an odd choice, but the other choice would have meant less screen time for Pugh, and I say a big “no” to that. She doesn’t look like she’s 12, but who cares? She’s a master in every scene.

Timothée Chalamet steps in for Batman as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, and there couldn’t have been a better choice for the role. His first dance with Jo, where they go a little crazy outside on a porch alone during a party, is as timeless as movie dancing gets. Chalamet has such skill and charm with every line delivery that not a single second of his movie time is wasteful.

My one minor quibble with the film: Gerwig is so damned ambitious with the way she shows the many timelines—out of chronological order—that there were definitely moments when I was a little confused. Again, it’s a minor quibble, because even though Little Women is occasionally confusing, it is always enjoyable.

Filmmakers: This is how you do a period piece, dammit. It’s a fresh take that makes you feel like you are seeing a story for the first time, even when you’ve seen that story multiple times before. This Little Women also transports you to another time—and it doesn’t hurt to have Meryl Streep (as Aunt March) in your period piece. Always a good thing.

Driving it all home are characters you root for, played by one of 2019’s greatest ensembles. All hail Greta Gerwig for bringing this group together in delightful, superbly entertaining fashion.

Up next for Gerwig? Possibly a Barbie movie with Margot Robbie. I am curious to see how that one pans out. It’s going to be interesting if it moves forward … because films are always interesting when Greta Gerwig is at the helm.

Little Women is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Netflix’s The Laundromat, from normally reliable director Steven Soderbergh, is a mess of a movie despite being filled with Oscar-caliber talent—because it lacks a focused purpose.

The film deals with a real scandal that included insurance fraud in the aftermath of a terrible boating accident in Lake George, N.Y. A cast including Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas is squandered as the movie goes through one discordant tonal shift after another.

Soderbergh starts off well—the boating accident is chillingly filmed—but then he makes some odd choices, including Oldman and Banderas playing a couple of lawyers who break the fourth wall and narrate the film. The movie strives to be clever, but ultimately lacks a focus on its subject matter. The result is confusing rather than compelling.

Props to Streep, who is excellent as a passenger on the ill-fated boat trying to receive insurance compensation. Streep has more than one surprise up her sleeve here.

Ever since Adam McKay made The Big Short a few years ago, films have been trying to capture a darkly comic, real-life vibe like that Oscar-winning film did. They’ve been failing—and The Laundromat fails badly.

The Laundromat is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, featuring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The film explores The Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam in 1971, a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like paper owner Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Of course, Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee: Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal. Bradlee, who died in 2014, was a journalism giant.

The movie starts in the mid-’60s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a member of the State Department who is a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier—and false—version with the American public.

In 1971, with Nixon in the White House, Hanks and Streep get their first scene together: They’re in a restaurant having breakfast, discussing their big controversy of the day—the White House’s meddling with their ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s request to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. This scene is long, dialogue-rich take—and it’s basically a school in great acting.

Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war, with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg, and The New York Times printing a story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the Nixon administration. Bradlee and his team come into contact with Ellsberg and get the opportunity to go through thousands of pages of classified documents. They have two options: Print a deeper story on the classified documents and face potential treason charges; or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through an initial public stock offering and would likely be harmed by any negative controversy.

History has told us what Graham, Bradlee and their team of reporters did—but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only uses The Post as an opportunity to put great actors in play; he makes The Post a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.

It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of producing a story for the masses in the 1970s were a little complicated by today’s standards: Journalists seeking leads with rotary phones and pay phones, and hard deadlines that had to be hit because it took a lot of time to actually publish a newspaper each day, play a big part in the storytelling. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, edited by a man with a pencil, and then placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of massive amounts of paper getting printed and then bound to be taken to the streets is one of Spielberg’s most impressive technical filmmaking feats in years.

The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the legendary TV comedians of Mr. Show. It’s a trip to see them onscreen together in a Spielberg production. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson round out the cast.

The Post is the best Spielberg offering since Munich, bringing to an end one of the weaker stretches in his career that included the lackluster Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG. It’s an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history—at a time when the freedom of the press is again being actively challenged by a sitting president.

The Post is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Disney’s Into the Woods is utterly clueless and boring—an adaptation that renders a musical play into a dreary movie.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway hit was a slightly sick, plucky wink at the audience—a look at the dark side of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As captured in a 1991 broadcast of American Playhouse, the play, starring Bernadette Peters, was a 150 minute-long romp with an adult sense of humor. It was hardly the stuff of Disney.

Director Rob Marshall has cut the film version down to about two hours, yet it feels twice as long as the play. Onstage, the music of Into the Woods was perky, tightly choreographed, consistently funny and almost frantic. In the movie, most of the songs just fart along. The singers are looking for emotive, warm, soulful qualities in Sondheim and Lapine’s musical. However, the musical didn’t emphasize those qualities. It was more of an intelligent, operatic goof.

This is just another princess movie. Marshall shoots most of the film on a soundstage, and while that’s admirable as far as catching live music goes, the resulting film has a bland, monotonous look to it.

The story puts a humorous spin on characters such as Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Most of the film’s plot centers on the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), cursed with a childless marriage by the Witch (Meryl Streep) after somebody messed with her garden. While Corden and Blunt sing well, their work is missing something. Only Streep manages to capture that strange, Sondheim whimsy. She is, far and away, the best thing about the movie.

Streep takes her musical moments, including “Witch’s Entrance,” and rises above the production. “Witch’s Entrance” occurs early in the film, and at that point, the film looks promising. That promise gets dashed on the rocks in moments like Crawford’s dreadful, wrongfully earnest rendition of “I Know Things Now,” Red Riding Hood’s post-wolf-encounter recollection. Sondheim’s wit is totally lost on Crawford and director Marshall.

Johnny Depp shows up for a few minutes as The Wolf in a stupid outfit that makes him look more feline than canine. His “Hello, Little Girl,” a song that is supposed to be rife with innuendo, makes him sound simply like an animal who wants to eat some food. Marshall and Depp give the number a slow, crooning presentation, as opposed to the former jaunty, obnoxious edge. It’s just wrong.

Blunt, Corden and Kendrick deliver their numbers as if they were in The Sound of Music rather than a clever fairy-tale parody. Tracey Ullman changes Jack’s Mother from a snarky bit of comic relief into a disgruntled, cranky mum. Huttlestone, who was awesome in the latest Les Misérables movie, does nothing memorable with Jack.

Understandably, Marshall deleted the character of The Narrator from the proceedings. The Narrator acted as a ringmaster in the stage show, and wouldn’t transition into a movie as a physical presence. Instead, Marshall has Corden’s Baker provide a voiceover that lends nothing fun.

The final act, involving the Giant’s Wife terrorizing the countryside, falls flat due to terrible special effects. This sequence had me thinking that Into the Woods has no business being adapted to the big screen.

Still, in those moments when Streep soars, I can’t help but think a director with a more-twisted vision, and a studio with a little more balls, could’ve given us something more suitable to Sondheim and Lapine (who, oddly enough, participated in the film’s production).

Dreamworks and Tim Burton did a masterful job with their very R-rated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Disney should’ve taken a few cues from them, and allowed Into the Woods to retain its sense of mischief rather than neutering it.

Into the Woods is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I’ve often complained that, because I have seen so many movies, I can guess big twists or mysteries in films long before they happen. So I have to give a lot of credit to the Old West drama The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones—because it has a twist I did not see coming.

Jones directs and co-stars as George Briggs, narrowly saved from hanging by one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Mary Bee has won the not-so-prestigious honor of taking three mentally ill women from the Nebraska territories back east via covered wagon. There, they will be handed over to a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep), who will take care of them and surely smack them over the heads with Bibles.

Mary Bee saves George on one condition: He must guide and protect her and the women on their trip. Upon reaching their destination, he will be set free with $300 in his pocket. George, who really has no choice, accepts the offer and joins forces with the strong-willed Mary Bee.

There are a few scenes establishing Mary Bee’s character before she meets up with George, including a very awkward dinner date and marriage proposal. It’s made clear early on that Mary Bee is “plain” and too bossy. While it’s hard to imagine that Swank could ever be “plain,” the bossy part is right on: She is not to be messed with.

Jones establishes the three troubled women with early scenes that are a little confusing. I was eventually able to assess that one woman killed her child; another lost her children to illness; and the other was just a little too into religion. The women are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter. They aren’t given very much to say, but each makes a memorably tragic impression.

The trip involves the usual Western road-trip mainstays, like a run-in with Indians and bad weather. Through it all, Jones and Swank have a great rapport, playing off each other well. Mary Bee is a complicated character in that she is very strong-willed and independent on one hand, while being guilt ridden, vulnerable and lonely on the other. In her day, to be unmarried at her age meant there was something drastically wrong with her in the public eye, resulting in shame and embarrassment. (The same happens today to a certain extent, but we have TV and iPods to take the edge off.)

Some of her behavior could be construed as erratic and uncharacteristic, but one has to keep in mind that her character occupies a different, cruel stage in American history. Mary Bee’s growing obsession with her social standing makes perfect sense, even if it seems a bit extreme. She wants to conduct sound business and form sensible unions at a time when women weren’t generally allowed to make such suggestions or demands.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank brings a rich coarseness to Mary Bee, a woman perhaps ahead of her time. There’s a sweetness to what Swank does with the role, and a sad element as well, as we see the cross-country trek taking a toll on her.

Jones is pretty much his usual self here—rough and tough on the outside, but definitely in possession of a soft side. As a director, he makes a good-looking movie. However, there are parts of the film that confound a bit, in part because some of the actors look similar. It personally took me a little while to sort some of the action out.

The Homesman isn’t a great Western, but it’s worthy entry to the genre—and it marks a nice return to form for Swank, who downright humiliated herself in some of her more recent roles. Jones has given her a role to remind us that she’s an actress of great power.

The Homesman is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

In a post-apocalyptic society, humans are being drugged into a state in which they feel no emotion, are completely submissive and see no colors. When they hit their late teens, they are assigned a job that they will have for the rest of their life. Everybody’s equal; there is no war; all aspects of life are predestined.

Lois Lowry’s novel had an interesting premise, but Phillip Noyce’s film simply feels and looks wrong. For starters, The Giver feels like a rip-off of Pleasantville, with the film slowly changing from black-and-white to color; meanwhile, elements of the dystopian society come off like a dated Disney ride. As for the casting, it’s good to see Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep on hand in pivotal roles, but the young leads (Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush) seem like they are overreaching. Taylor Swift shows up for a couple of minutes in a cameo—a cameo that is being marketed as a starring role, misleading her fans.

Bridges is at least interesting as an old wise man who stores all memories of past societies in his head. He’s tasked with passing his memories on to young Jonas (Thwaites)—as if that isn’t going to cause some sort of problem.

Noyce gives us some pretty pictures and a halfway decent cast—and basically doesn’t know what to do with it.

The Giver is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Tracy Letts’ play came to the big screen with a big cast featuring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters and their husbands/boyfriends return home to Texas and their dying mother (the Oscar-nominated Streep). Mom was mean when they were growing up, and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts, also Oscar-nominated); she is doing her best not to follow in mom’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work, including Juliette Lewis, who does her first truly good acting in a long while. The lone exception would be Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the slow sibling. He’s just all wrong for the part.

Sam Shepard makes a brief but memorable appearance as the family patriarch. While his screen time is short, his character plays a large part in the film.

The movie is super-dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything all that new, the cast makes the film worth seeing.

The ending feels a bit tacked on; in fact, it was tacked on: The studio didn’t find the original ending to be suitable, so they insisted on this new one.

Special Features: There’s a director’s commentary (something that’s been rare on recent Blu-ray releases), deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Tracy Letts’ play has come to the big screen with a big cast, including Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters, accompanied by their husbands/boyfriends, return home to Texas and their dying mother (played by Streep). Mother was mean when they were growing up—and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts), who is doing her best not to follow in mother’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work—including Juliette Lewis, who turns in her first strong performance a long while. The lone exception: Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a slow member of the family. He’s just all wrong for the part.

The movie is super dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything new, the cast makes it worth seeing, thanks to the power of their performances.

August: Osage County is playing at the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews

The Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off over the weekend with some of the fest's biggest events.

On Friday, Jan. 3, the Opening Night Gala Screening, featuring the film Belle, took place at Palm Springs High School. And on Saturday was the biggest event of all: The Black Tie Awards Gala, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the awards affair:

The Palm Springs International Film Festival gala or, as Tom Hanks called it, "This little, intimate, Sonny Bono rec-room chicken dinner get-together for two-and-a-half-thousand people," took place Saturday night. Meryl Streep picked up an award. So did Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey, among others.

And though they were all seated within a few feet of one another in the airport-hangar-sized Palm Springs Convention Center, these Hollywood stars were more or less allowed to eat their pot-roast dinner in peace.

That's because Bono was in the house.

That's Bono, the singer from the Irish rock band U2, not Mary Bono, the widow of another singer named Bono—Sonny, the man who started the film festival 25 years ago when he was mayor of Palm Springs.

The Independent was there; here are just a few pictures from the events. And watch all week for more coverage of the festival. Enjoy!

Published in Snapshot