Review: Little Women (2019)

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Little Women (2019).

Here’s my history with Little Women: Nada. I’ve never read the book and haven’t seen any of the many films and miniseries that have been made. I had no idea what I was getting into, while many of you might know what’s coming a mile away. For me, this was a fresh and new experience. What did I think?

The gist.

We follow four sisters, in the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States. Their father is away, so their mother (Laura Dern) and grandmother (Meryl Streep) take care of them mostly. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) wants to be an author, so spends her time writing and rewriting short stories to sell to local newspapers. She doesn’t see herself marrying, though a boy named Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) has become quite fond of her. Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest and wants a more traditional life, so she seeks a husband. Amy (Florence Pugh) wants to become an artist, so spends time in France learning to paint, though finds that it is difficult for a woman to earn her own income in this world. The youngest daughter Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a piano prodigy but finds herself too shy to really perform.

little women 3

What works?

This movie is absolutely incredible. I didn’t think this movie would hit every note for me, but it definitely did.

Let’s talk performances. Saoirse Ronan continues to prove that she’s a powerhouse, again reuniting with director Greta Gerwig (after Lady Bird). But you know who really surprised me? Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Midsommar) did an incredible job here, especially in her dynamics with Saoirse’s character. These two had an incredible love and hate chemistry that you couldn’t peel your eyes away from.

I also really appreciated Timothee Chalamet here. I’ve only seen him in intense dramas like Beautiful Boy, so it was quite a 180 to see him so lively and carefree here, providing some of the movie’s best comedic moments. Him and Saoirse shared some intense sequences together and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a supporting actor nod for him come Oscar season, in addition to several of the women from the cast to be sure.

Something I don’t usually comment on but I really appreciated here: the tone and warmth of the cinematography. There are multiple timelines here and the past was always lush and vibrant, with lots of reds and earth tones. Then it’d cut to the ‘present’ of the film and it’d be a pale bluish hue. Beautifully done and helped us, as an audience, keep track of this timeline.

And since I didn’t know anything about this classic tale, it was a roller coaster. The film was suspenseful, charming, hilarious, heartbreaking, and more. It was a perfect combination and resulted in undoubtedly one of my favorite films of 2019.

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What doesn’t work?

Absolutely nothing, this is an incredible film. It may not be for everyone, but if you’re on the fence, this is a very solid pick.

Overall…

I’m a convert. Is there a Little Women fanpage I can join? A Facebook group? I’m still thinking about this movie and how much it impacted me. I cried out of happiness, I cried out of sadness, I laughed many times, I was completely invested in this film and I want you to feel the same. Head to the theaters now and reward good behavior.

5

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Review: Marriage Story

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Marriage Story.

I’ve gotten quite a few messages and comments asking when I’d get around to reviewing the Netflix-exclusive drama Marriage Story, so I finally made time to sit down with it… and wow, that was intense.

The gist.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are a married couple and we follow them as their marriage falls apart and they finalize a divorce. Caught in the middle is their only child Henry (Azhy Robertson). We also have lawyers on both sides of the case played by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach.

You can imagine this is an emotionally draining series of events, so make sure you’re in a solid state of mind to put yourself through this before you begin.

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What works?

This entire film is reliant on its performances and that’s where the movie succeeded most. Scarlet Johansson was great, yes, but I found Adam Driver to be the one who brought me to tears, several times. This arc is painful and heartbreaking and he’s absolutely captivating, no matter which ‘side’ you end up taking in this exchange.

In terms of story, this movie is brilliant in that no side is clearly right. As it progresses, both characters make drastic moves to ‘win’ this divorce and it’s heartbreaking for both of them. If you’re a child of divorce, or have been through one yourself, you may find this story hard to watch unfold, or maybe cathartic. It will undoubtedly have some strong effects on you.

marriage story 1

What doesn’t work?

I don’t think this is a perfect movie. It’s a bit overhyped for me, so I felt a tad disappointed. The performances are great, yes. Oscar-caliber. But I don’t think this movie as a whole is anything incredible. It’s a relatable story with great performances, so a lot of people seem to be won over by that.

It’s also a hard watch, which some of you may not enjoy at all. And it’s likely a film that you won’t ever want to rewatch. It drags at times, sometimes limping to the finish line, and there’s some odd tone choices which undercut the message, including a sequence with an oddball social service worker that was played for laughs. There’s genius in here, but this isn’t an especially polished jewel.

Overall…

If you’re in the right state of mind, this movie is worth watching for Driver and Johansson’s performances alone. It’s a very human tale and unfortunately relatable for many people. However the movie could have benefited from some trimming in the editing room and a reshoot of a few comedic sequences which felt tonally incongruent.

4

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Review: Bombshell (2019)

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Bombshell.

I don’t watch a lot of Fox News, so I unsurprisingly didn’t know about this major scandal involving several of their women news anchors and a sexual harassment suit against one of their executives Roger Ailes. This is that story.

The gist.

In 2016, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was fired from Fox News and almost immediately filed a sexual harassment claim against the executive in charge, Roger Ailes (played here by John Lithgow). Her case was dependent on others coming forward, so we also follow the story of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) who has a history with Roger but is hesitant to come forward at the expense of her career. Megyn Kelly is also battling against Donald Trump as he vies for the presidential nomination. We have a third woman that we follow, a fictional character called Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), who is a proxy for all the young interns who had experiences at Fox News while trying to climb to the top.

We have supporting roles played by Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Connie Briton, Mark Duplass, and many more.

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What works?

The performances here are across the board incredible, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the talent here. Nicole Kidman’s character is responsible for really moving the plot forward, while Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie get to dwell in those moments and really showcase their talents. It’s a killer ensemble and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them score Oscar nominations, especially Charlize Theron for her transformation into Megyn Kelly. John Lithgow has a much more devious transformation into the villain of the story and he too really shines.

The movie itself also really works, briskly speeding through these events but smartly slowing down at the perfect times. There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall narration, similar to how films like The Big Short deliver exposition. This is a huge step forward for director Jay Roach, who began his career directing all three Austin Powers films.

This film also had a struggle from the beginning, in trying to make a film that we sympathize with the struggles of these women, but these women are real icons of Fox News that have often been vocally supportive of the GOP agenda. So how do you make a film focusing on Fox News anchors but manage to appease both left and right leaning audiences? It’s a tightrope but one that I think worked. It doesn’t hide Fox News’ role in pushing Trump into the spotlight but it still manages to make these individuals sympathetic, though not completely innocent.

I don’t usually bring up the music in a film, but I found Bombshell‘s often a cappella background tracks as really interesting.

bombshell 1

What doesn’t work?

Like I said, our main characters are real-life anchors that more liberal audiences might have a real distaste for. So if you go in already hating them, even the most sympathetic of stories might fall on deaf ears. Again, I think the movie still put the focus of our disdain on Fox News and Trump, but you may feel like these women were let off the hook for their role in making that happen.

Overall…

I found Bombshell to be a great story, really challenging and pushing back against political preconceptions. The performances are top notch and the story is very engaging, so most of you should have a good time here. There’s no reason to see it on the big screen, but this should definitely be in your queue for when it hits streaming services. It’ll be in the mix when the Oscar nominations roll around, rest assured.

5

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(Review) The Witcher: Season One

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The Witcher. Season One.

Surprisingly, I had zero knowledge of the Witcher franchise before diving into the show. I knew it was a series of short stories and novels based on Polish and European folklore, and I knew it was the basis for three popular video games, culminating in The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt which was praised by many as one of the best games ever made. Somehow, I just missed it. So when the Netflix series came out, I thought now might be my chance to see what this is all about.

The gist.

We follow Geralt (Henry Cavill), a Witcher, which means he’s a mutated human created to hunt and kill mighty monsters and supernatural threats, in a medieval fictional place called The Continent. His adventures mix these monster-hunting adventures with political intrigue between warring nations. We also follow two other characters, that will eventually cross paths with Geralt. The first is a woman named Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), who is a hunchbacked woman shunned by everyone, who begins training to become a powerful mage. We also follow a young girl named Ciri (Freya Allan), who escapes as her city is attacked and is on a quest to find Geralt, the only one able to protect her.

This isn’t a spoiler but might be helpful for you to appreciate this show. I wish someone had told me this at the beginning, so I’m doing you a favor. The three characters we follow are in different timelines. The mage Yennefer begins her training long before the girl Ciri is even born. Eventually, our timelines meet, but it took me awhile to understand what was happening, when one character would die and then show up later without a scratch. And like other large-cast complicated shows, it’d benefit you to watch with subtitles on, to catch all the character and location names.

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What works?

There might be a void in your life following the conclusion of Game of Thrones. You might want an epic story, with both mystical and political trappings to keep you engaged. The Witcher fills that slot nicely. At only eight episodes, it’s a little short and you might feel like we’re just getting to the good stuff, but this is the beginning of something really special.

It all centers on Henry Cavill as our lead character. While the character doesn’t emote (really, at all), his character is still interesting and provides enough action that those of you wanting badass sword fights and epic monsters will find him a satisfactory hero. It also teases a lot of backstory about Geralt that will unfold in the future, about the tragedies that made him this way. It’s all very intriguing.

I also need to mention that the fight choreography here is brutal and impressive, so when Geralt unsheathes the sword, you know you’re in for a treat.

And this world we’re exposed to is incredibly compelling. Each time a new monster or supernatural threat arrived, I found myself diving into history and trying to learn more about these things. The world is rich and interesting.

Our other two leads are also very intriguing. While Ciri (Freya Allan) doesn’t get much to do other than run from various threats, the star of the show is really Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), whose physical, mental, and emotional arc is really something to behold. You have to remember that her arc takes place over 30-something years, so from one episode to the next, she might make drastic leaps.

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What doesn’t work?

This first season doesn’t have the budget it really needed, so some of the visual effects (both magical and monstrous) might lack a little. I’m hoping now that this show has gained approval, a second season might look a little more polished.

Also, the show might be confusing if you don’t get the hints about the time differences. It didn’t click for me til about halfway through, so hopefully I can help some of you out from the beginning.

Overall…

This is not a perfect season. It could use a bigger budget to really showcase these wild monsters and eight episodes was not enough to get to know all these characters, especially considering they don’t engage with each other right away. However, this world is incredibly interesting and our leads captivate you to keep coming back. I was thoroughly impressed and can’t wait for what season two brings!

4

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Review: Richard Jewell

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Richard Jewell.

In 1996, there was a bomb at the Olympic games in Atlanta, GA. This is the story of the FBI’s lead suspect, who also happened to find the bomb and save lives.

The gist.

Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) found a bomb and saved lives, though FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) believes him to be the lead suspect. When the media (spearheaded by Olivia Wilde’s character) releases this information, Jewell’s life is turned upside down. His mother (Kathy Bates) and lawyer (Sam Rockwell) must try to calm the tensions and prove Jewell’s innocence. But did he do it?

The Ballad of Richard Jewell

What works?

Clint Eastwood has has a very turbulent record with directing films, but I loved The Mule which came out last holiday season. He follows it up with another dynamite film here, easily an awards contender.

Most of this movie’s success lies on our lead, Paul Walter Hauser. A supporting actor usually, this is his first time in the spotlight and he absolutely nails it. There’s a balance here, where his Jewell is likable and you’re rooting for him, but there’s always an eerie tension that makes you think “Mayyyyybe he did do it.” I’m not sure if he’ll crack the nominees for Best Actor at the Oscars, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

And the supporting cast here is also incredible. Kathy Bates is great, Sam Rockwell is (as usual) excellent. It’s a perfectly cast movie, allowing this script to truly come to life. I read up on a failed run at this film, starring Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’m glad that fell through, because I feel like this cast absolutely nailed it.

One thing I’d suggest… If you don’t know how this story unfolds, don’t read into it beforehand. I looked up the real life story and I think the suspense might’ve meant a little more if I didn’t know what was coming.

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What doesn’t work?

Not much. It hits all the right notes.

But that said, this movie isn’t going to get a 5-star treatment. I can’t peg why but this movie doesn’t do anything special. The performances are great, but the film they’re in is pretty standard. Sometimes it just doesn’t have the special sauce to get that top notch spot.

Overall…

Incredible performances anchor this film, with some potential Oscar-nominees. The story is suspenseful and best if you go in without knowing anything. If you’re looking for a drama with real-world implications, this is a no-brainer. It’s not necessary to see on the big screen, but keep it in the back of your mind for reference!

4

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Review: Cats (2019)

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Cats.

Okay, let’s get straight to it. Cats will haunt me for the rest of my life. Let me tell you why.

The gist.

I have never seen Cats before, even though I’m a huge musical fan. Just missed this one somehow. Well, if you had told me the gist of this musical, I don’t know if I would have believed you.

The movie follows Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a newly stray cat who is brought into a group of feral cats known as Jellicles. Now, once a year, these Jellicles get together and the oldest cat Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses one cat to ascend to this heaven-like place called the Heaviside Layer. She decides which cat based on this weird singing competition. One cat wants to ascend real bad, named Macavity (Idris Elba), but he decides his best route is to eliminate the competition, so our cats must evade Macavity while performing showtunes. We have a solid cast including James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, and Jason Derulo.

Film Title: Cats

What works?

The soundtrack is hit or miss, but there are some really solid performances vocally. Of course, there’s Jennifer Hudson, whose ‘Memory’ rendition is a tearjerker. I also really enjoyed the track ‘Mr. Mistoffelees,’ sung by relative unknown Laurie Davidson as the same-named Mr. Mistoffelees. I watched some Broadway clips to compare to the film and I’m way more invested in the film version of this track, though it’s drastically different. This segment really worked.

What doesn’t work?

The visuals will forever emblazon themselves on your eyes and you can never unsee them. Their ‘groundbreaking’ technology of adding CGI cat features and fur to these actors and actresses turned them into these abominations that are incredibly upsetting to look at. It actually detracts from a lot of the performances that should have been jaw droppers. Even when Jennifer Hudson is killing it, you can’t help but be distracted by her mangy fur and CGI features.

But let’s say you could somehow get past this. There are other big problems inherent in the script, either from the original or from the adaptation, I’m not sure where these problems came. The jokes don’t land, the plot doesn’t make sense at all, and most folks with no familiarity with this musical will have no idea what’s going on. The movie begins with a song about Jellicles but it sounds like gibberish because we don’t know what Jellicles are. It’s also imbalanced in tone, how we should be crying and emotionally invested but then there are way too many jokes about hitting people in the junk, even though every male looks like a Ken doll. It doesn’t really succeed at humor or the sentimental.

I think it circles back to “Why was this film made?” and that’s a hard question to answer. As a musical, it makes sense to have a cat show up, sing its song, and then bounce. You understand that it’s a framing device to showcase incredible singers and ballet dancers. There’s a flimsy story that allows these moments to be connected. As a movie, it doesn’t make sense. The plot could be explained in a sentence or two, there’s almost nothing here. But then things that should be further explained are ignored. Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella has no context and I still don’t quite understand what was happening there, but it seemed important. Again, the only chance they took that did pay off was the changes made to Mr. Mistoffelees, giving that character context that the musical didn’t seem to have.

Oh, and Taylor Swift shows up for a song? What?

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Overall…

For most of this film, I was horrified and traumatized. It’s visually upsetting. In the climax however, a few killer songs and a few standout actors redeemed the movie just a tad, saving this from the lowest ranking I can offer. You might be curious, but I’d wait to see this movie so you’re not rewarding bad behavior.

2

 

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(Review) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

It’s impossible to please everyone, especially considering how divisive this new trilogy of Star Wars films have been. People criticized The Force Awakens for playing it too safe, hitting the same beats as the original trilogy. And then people criticized The Last Jedi for veering too far away, changing beloved characters and doing something unconventional. So with this final installment, there’s virtually no way to give people both. Some folks will want a surprising and innovative climax, while others want a fan-pleasing culmination. Which will it be?

The gist.

In an unexpected turn, the villainous Emperor Palpatine has returned, last seen as he was ‘killed’ in Return of the Jedi. Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks to find him and stop him, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks to kill him and remain at the top of the food chain. Finding him is tricky, though, so the majority of our film is trying to track down the way to Palpatine. We also have heroes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega). In her final appearance, using only old unused footage, is Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa.

What works?

As an independent film, a lot works here.

The highlight performance is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the conflicted villain. His arc has been the most interesting, as he walks a fine line of being nearly irredeemable. Here, we get everything we want from him, including several incredible lightsaber fights, including one epic duel with Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the top of the crashed Death Star, amid a wild ocean. Some folks might have qualms with how his story resolves but I found it fitting and appropriate.

Most people go into Star Wars wanting adventure. This is a swashbuckling action film, with plenty of chase sequences and twists and turns. This is not an Oscar-caliber character drama, so if you set your expectations right, you’re going to have a great time. There’s new aliens to meet, some epic action setpieces, and plenty of laughs. I think people might be setting the bar too high, but this movie is right on track with what Star Wars has always been.

As a fan, there are plenty of crowd-pleasing moments, especially in the post-climax. These moments can feel a little artificial, but some of you will appreciate the nods, going back all the way to the original films.

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What doesn’t work?

Some people hold this franchise too close and feel this sort of ownership over it. But it’s not ours. This is a journey that we’re watching, but some folks might feel like the decisions made here aren’t the decisions they would have made. So you might balk a bit when certain things happen. It’s the same response people had to Game of Thrones. “That’s not what I wanted to happen.” We don’t own these franchises, we’re just lucky enough to watch them unfold. So some of you might have a hard time with the choices made here.

I also said that this movie works as an independent film, but it doesn’t work as well when placed as the finale in a trilogy. Some choices here contradict or veer away from choices made in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So as a trilogy, this can feel unbalanced and a bit confusing.

As a film, I also had a few qualms. I think the pacing is off, this movie drags in the middle. For being a high-octane adventure, there is quite a bit of the film in which not much really happens. It also throws us into major exposition, including the reveal of Palpatine being alive, in the first few minutes, so the beginning can feel jarring as you try to adjust.

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Overall…

This is not a perfect film but it’s also not the absolute trainwreck that some people are claiming. It’s an adventure movie, with cute aliens and cool fight scenes, and it happens to make some bold choices (which it’s allowed to). We may not agree with those choices. I think some of you will love this movie, it’s definitely bright and entertaining, but I had problems with the film’s pacing and it’s a little jarring how it fits with the prior films. For me, the pros far outweighed the cons, and I had a great time here.

4

 

 

 

 

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