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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

For those of you who love cars, but are getting tired of the Fast and Furious franchise’s “vroom-vroom” formula, Ford v Ferrari will be a welcome ode to automobiles going very fast.

It’s the 1960s, and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) has had it up to here with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and his fast, flashy cars. He and cronies such as Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) are cranky, and they want to send a message to the world that Ford isn’t just about family cars. They also want to win races and appeal to the younger, Baby Boomer demographic with Mustangs and the like.

Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a race car driver who, after a heart condition benches him, becomes a designer and salesman. Ford hires Shelby to design a car that can beat Ferrari in races—primarily the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race

It’s a tall order, and it calls for a crazy guy behind the wheel calling the shots. That guy is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an English-born rule-breaker who can drive a car and instantly know what can be fixed on it to make the thing go faster. His lack of convention causes Ford to bristle; Shelby gets in the middle; and we have ourselves a gripping tale about racing technology, volatile friendships and corporate clashes.

If you are looking for glorious depictions of high-stakes auto racing, you will not be disappointed: Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) films Ford v Ferrari in such a way that you feel every gear shift, hairpin turn and moment when a car could skid off the tracks and cause grave injury. In this sense, the movie tops the auto-movie genre.

If you are looking for powerhouse acting, you will not be let down: Damon and Bale are otherworldly good as two longtime pals who have no problem with occasionally punching each other in the face, yet always having each other’s backs. Letts and Bernthal do well at showing the corporate side of things, while Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe are good as Miles’ wife and kid. Some of the family stuff gets a little clichéd, but the performers, especially the amazing Jupe, elevate the material.

There’s a lot of car talk, and credit goes to writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller for a script that makes the audience feel like it is learning without getting bored or overwhelmed. I walked out of this movie knowing a little more about hot brakes and the ways in which they can kill a driver’s chances to win a race. Just consider yourself warned: The class is long, clocking in at just more than 2 1/2 hours.

This one is going to be in awards contention for sound, cinematography and art direction, as well as the acting categories. There have been previous car-racing movies, but this one puts you in the driver’s seat like none before. If you’ve had the distinct pleasure (or terror, given one’s outlook) of being in a race car at racing speeds, you will know that Mangold and his crew get the sensations right.

The final sequence, involving the 24 Hour Le Mans, is a masterclass on how to make a racing movie right: It’s a superbly conducted balance of the technical and the dramatic. Damon and Bale are giving DiCaprio and Pitt of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a run for the money in the year’s best-acting-duo department.

Ford v Ferrari feels real, authentic and well-researched. It’s a movie that will please race-car fans—and entertain those who could care less about racing cars. It also makes Vin Diesel look like a total poseur.

Ford v Ferrari is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

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

Greta Gerwig makes her solo directorial debut with Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical look at her life growing up in Sacramento—and she immediately establishes herself as a directing force to be reckoned with.

Saoirise Ronan, who should’ve won an Oscar for Brooklyn, will likely get another chance for her turn as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an artistic Sacramento youth who yearns for the East Coast and some distance from her domineering mom (Laurie Metcalf). This is a coming-of-age story like no other thanks to the insightful writing and brisk directorial style of Gerwig, who makes Lady Bird’s story consistently surprising.

Ronan’s Lady Bird is a rebel with a good heart—a theater geek who stinks at math—but she’s on an emotional rollercoaster. She also gets a lot of laughs, especially in her showdowns with Metcalf, who has never been better.

Lucas Hedges, on a roll after Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is funny and sad as one of Lady Bird’s young love interests, while Odeya Rush is golden as Lady Bird’s best friend, Jenna. Tracy Letts is perfect as the nice dad dealing with warring factions in the household, while Timothée Chalamet (currently racking up awards for Call Me by Your Name) is perhaps the biggest laugh-getter as another love interest, the aloof Kyle.

Lady Bird is a triumph for Ronan and Gerwig, and while it would never happen, I’d love to see a sequel about Lady Bird’s college years.

Lady Bird is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

While the film Christine has its inconsistencies, Rebecca Hall delivers an electrifyingly good performance as the title character.

No, this isn’t a remake of the John Carpenter film with a killer car. This is about Christine Chubbuck, the infamous news reporter who shot herself on live television in the 1970s.

Hall depicts Chubbuck as bright but, obviously, troubled. Doing small feature stories on a Florida TV station and looking to move ahead, her ideas are a little too out there for her station manager, Michael (the incomparable Tracy Letts). On top of that, she’s trying to date station anchor George (Michael C. Hall) with little success. 

While director Antonio Campos’ film feels a little flat, the two Halls and Letts usually breathe life back into it.

Rebecca Hall would probably have gotten serious Oscar buzz if the film felt fully realized rather than moderately good. It’s worth seeing for Hall, Hall and Letts, but it fails to crack into the elite of last year’s movies.

Christine is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

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