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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

The Circle is a clueless movie based on the novel by Dave Eggers, a lame attempt at satire regarding social networking and the invasion of privacy during this digital age.

The setup is certainly interesting—but the execution seems like something perpetuated by a 14 year-old student who waited until he or she was on the school bus to scribble out a paper on the perils of social networking, just before it was due.

After slaving away at a temp job, Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lands a gig at The Circle thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), a top player at the company. The Circle is essentially all of today’s ubiquitous tech entities—Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—wrapped into one. It’s run by a friendly looking, coffee-cup-toting, Steve Jobs-like entity named Bailey (Tom Hanks) and his sidekick, Stenton (Patton Oswalt, aka TV’s Son of TV’s Frank on the new incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000).

Mae progresses from being a customer-service rep to being a big player in the company seemingly overnight—and let’s just say that ascension is a wee bit unconvincing. She starts as an apprehensive but competent newbie, who thinks some of what The Circle offers is a bit much and invasive, and suddenly becomes a full-on advocate and believer of what she’s peddling. How does Mae become a pawn in Bailey’s evil scramble for world digital domination? She has a kayaking mishap, and is saved because The Circle had a camera on a buoy in San Francisco Bay.

The film went through some major reshoots, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the kayaking sequence was pushed into the movie as a last-minute plot device. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the kayaking thing was in there from the start, because everything in this movie feels arbitrary and tacked-on.

Mae’s relationship with her friend Annie goes sour with very little warning and no real explanation, other than Annie is envious of Mae’s success. Annie is a pal in one frame, and then an adversary a few frames later. It feels like the movie is missing something with her character. The same thing goes with Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), a friend of Mae’s who takes a lot of flack after she posts a pic of the antler chandelier he made. That flack is mostly from animal activists, as well as, presumably, people who have good taste, because his work is ugly as hell.

Watson’s portrayal of Mae’s turmoil and opinion swings lacks dimension, wit and shock value. Much of this can be blamed on the screenplay, written by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt; it lacks the sort of insight and dark humor this sort of film needs. It’s also possible that the likable Watson lacks the talent to pull off a roll like this—one that requires her to be unlikable in many ways.

The film is clearly aiming for satire, but it has no bite, and its tone is often grating. Sequences like Mae’s interview and job-orientation sessions feel like they belong in another, less-reality-based movie. They are also horribly acted and staged.

This film’s level of stink is stunning, considering that it’s directed by Ponsoldt, who was on a roll after the 1-2-3 punch of Smashed, The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. It’s also sad that this is the last film appearance for Bill Paxton, who plays Mae’s ill father. He’s a great actor who deserved a better sendoff than this miserable reunion with Hanks, his Apollo 13 co-star.

For those of you plunking down the bucks to see a Tom Hanks movie, know that he is only in a few scenes—and he, like Watson, looks lost.

The Circle is obnoxious, sloppy and full of aimless arguments that have no true conclusions. You know … it’s like most of your Facebook and Twitter news feeds.

The Circle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s wonderful animated musical from 1991, is the latest feature to get placed on the Disney Live Redo of a Beloved Animated Movie Assembly Line, with a big-budget effort starring Emma Watson as the iconic Belle, and Ewan McGregor as a CGI candelabra.

You may be asking yourself, “Is this absolutely necessary?”

The answer: No. No, it is not.

Then, you may ask yourself, “OK, if it isn’t necessary, is it at least an enjoyable pastime, for I like enjoyable pastimes? They help distract me from all of this trivial shit in my head.”

The answer: Why, yes, it is an enjoyable movie, even if it is completely unnecessary.

The movie isn’t a shot-for-shot remake of the original like, say, Gus Van Sant’s time-wasting Psycho effort. However, it does follow a lot of the same plot points and incorporates enough of the musical numbers to give you a sense of déjà vu.

Thankfully, Watson makes it worthwhile—Hermione makes for a strong Belle. Since director Bill Condon retains the music from the original animated movie, Watson is asked to sing, and it’s pretty evident that Auto-Tune is her friend. She has a Kanye West thing going.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens gives a decent-enough performance through motion-capture. The original intent was to have Stevens wearing prosthetics only, but he probably looked like Mr. Snuffleupagus in the dailies, so they called upon the help of beloved computers. The CGI creation blends in nicely with his human side.

The cast and crew labor to make musical numbers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” pop with the creative energy of the animated version, but they don’t quite reach those heights. They are nicely rendered, for sure, but not on the masterpiece level that was the ’91 film. As for the romance between Belle and the Beast, it has a nice emotional payoff. In a way, the movie is a sweet tribute to the animated movie, rather than being a movie that truly stands on its own.

Where does Beauty and the Beast stack up with the other recent re-dos of animated Disney classics? I would put it well above Pete’s Dragon, but below Cinderella and The Jungle Book, which were more solid efforts and felt a little more original.

There are worse things to do in cinemas right now than watch a good-enough retake on a Disney movie starring one of your favorite members of the Potter universe and that guy from Downton Abbey. Beauty and the Beast is nice, yet ultimately disposable, fluff. Let’s face it: Disney has the money to throw away on ventures such as this, and given the box office takes, this train is going to keep on rolling.

If you like Disney redo fluff, there’s more coming. The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo, Peter Pan and Mulan are just a few of the remakes in the pipeline. Actually, pretty much everything they’ve done up until now is being remade. Universal has a Little Mermaid movie on the way, yet Disney still has plans to release their own live version of their animated gem. Winnie the Pooh and Cruella (the villain from 101 Dalmatians) are all current projects.

In short, with this juggernaut, Star Wars and Marvel all under the same dome, Disney is so big, they will be governing the planet soon. Stay tuned for Disney Health Care, a Disney Missile Defense System, and Mickey Mouse for president.

Oh, wait … that last one has sort of happened already.

Beauty and the Beast is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

I did my share of Bible-reading when I was a kid. In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover.

I was also reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a bunch of Stephen King books—and of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, nothing was more violent and more insane than the Bible. Actually, the Bible may be the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction. If you count the apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature. That’s a huge body count!

Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema. With Noah, director Darren Aronofsky has concocted a crazy, dark and nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.

In what is surely his best performance to date, Russell Crowe plays the title character, a good, passionate man in a not-particularly-good time. The people outside of Noah’s family circle have turned Earth into a place of carnivorous debauchery, and “The Creator” (this film’s go-to name for God) intends to wipe all humanity off the face of the Earth with a great flood. Noah is tasked with saving the innocent animals on a huge ship that he is to build, with the help of large rock monsters.

That’s right—I said large rock monsters. This movie has rock monsters in it. They are Aronofsky’s version of fallen angels. I don’t remember reading about rock monsters in the Bible, but I will tell you that they come in quite handy when one is tasked with building a huge boat to house two of every animal on the planet. (That’s minus the sea-faring animals, of course. There were no aquariums on the ark. Dolphins and angelfish and whatnot probably just camped out under the stormy surface, while the sharks went to town on people clinging to mountain peaks and treetops in the rising waters. Sharks eating the biblically doomed as they scampered atop Mount Everest are not depicted in this film, but I reckon “Shark-Flood-Oh” could be coming soon to a cable channel near you.)

The supporting cast includes Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife; Emma Watson as his adopted daughter; and Anthony Hopkins as the Yoda-like, mountain-dwelling grandfather. Logan Lerman delivers notably good work as Ham, the son of Noah who eventually gets banished for seeing his dad all drunk and naked.

The movie, as a spectacle, is quite good, although its CGI does have a few moments of weakness. The flood itself is a frightening sequence, with a horrifying moment involving screaming people outside of the ark getting washed off a big rock by waves. I’m actually surprised this movie garnered a PG-13 rating. It struck me, very much, as an R-rated film due to its violence.

Noah is also a beautiful, inspiring story about survival, freewill, blind faith, killing in the name of religion and, above all, the virtues of veganism. It comes as no surprise that Aronofsky, who also co-wrote the script, is a vegan. It also comes as no surprise that the film’s main villain (Ray Winstone) bites the heads off of live animals for evil energy.

Yes, I had a blast with this movie. I imagine it will enrage a few pastors and preachers who bring their Sunday-school classes to a matinee, only to discover the rock monsters.

Noah is not a deeply religious film; it’s a big, bold disaster movie with a super-intelligent and compassionate core. Like the best of movies, it will inspire many long, perhaps fiery conversations for years to come.

Noah is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Based on an actual series of robberies during which Southern California teens robbed the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s fifth directorial effort, is a biting satire featuring fun work from Emma Watson in a performance reminiscent of that of Nicole Kidman in To Die For.

The ensemble cast, including Katie Chang, Israel Broussard and Taissa Farmiga, does a good job of portraying vacuous teens obsessed with celebrity—and what those celebrities are wearing.

When they find out a star is out of town, they go to the star’s house—and basically go shopping. At one point, they go to Paris Hilton’s place; Coppola films at Hilton’s actual house.

In typical Coppola style, the film looks great and boasts a terrific soundtrack. It’s a return to form for the director after the sleepy misfire that was Somewhere.

The Bling Ring is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16, 72777 Dinah Shore Drive in Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615.

Published in Reviews

James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and especially Danny McBride and Michael Cera are going to get crossed off a lot of Christmas-party guest lists this year. After what happens at their party in This Is the End, nobody’s going to want them anywhere near the Chex mix.

Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, make a co-directorial debut for the ages with this caustically funny, blood-drenched satire of Hollywood vanity and biblical end times. Nobody is safe in this movie, in which Rogen and a bunch of his film cronies play themselves. They behave rather poorly as apocalyptic hellfire burns the Hollywood Hills, and the devil comes knocking with his huge junk hanging out.

When Baruchel comes to Hollywood to visit Rogen, he is dragged against his will to James Franco’s incredible new house—which Franco has, of course, designed himself—for a blowout party, where Cera is jacked up on coke and slapping Rihanna’s ass. Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and an uninvited Danny McBride are also in attendance, along with nearly everybody else of comedic relevance in today’s movie world.

Baruchel and Rogen go out for smokes and watch helplessly as blue beams of light suck convenience-store patrons into the sky. When they return to the house, the ground opens up, and most of the partygoers meet their demise in gruesome ways. (Poor, perverted Michael Cera gets the nastiest exit.)

Rogen, Franco, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel survive and take inventory of their food and beverages. Matters get worse when an oblivious McBride awakens and eats most of their stuff. Constant infighting and masturbatory practices ensue while the stage is set for Satan’s earthly return.

Not surprisingly, McBride is the biggest jerk of the bunch, echoing his usual movie persona. Hill gets ribbed for thinking he’s too good for everyone else after Moneyball, and Franco is the Renaissance Man who decorates his house with his own, self-created art.

An anarchic spirit is at play with this project. Rogen and Goldberg get their stars to do mighty unsavory things (Cera’s three-way in the bathroom, for instance). Major props go to Emma Watson for taking part in something that has her behaving in a way that would make Hermione puke.

On top of the ample humor, Rogen and Goldberg manage a pretty decent horror show, with decapitations, impalings, burnings and Satan with the aforementioned huge privates. In the future, when you are planning a horror/comedy night at home, this one will go along nicely with Evil Dead 11 and Dead Alive.

The enterprise reminded me of Ghostbusters, a movie that successfully mixed big comedic-star elements with sci-fi and horror. Oh, this is a stoner comedy, too. Hey, Rogen and Franco are in it, so what did you expect?

Some of these guys have been screwing up a bit as of late. Rogen made the wasteful The Guilt Trip with Barbra Streisand; Franco bored me with Oz: The Great and Powerful and Spring Breakers; and both McBride and Franco stunk up movie theaters with Your Highness, a mixed-genre failure to the highest degree.

This Is the End gets them all back on track and re-establishes them as the reigning kings of Hollywood comedy.

This Is the End is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews