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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Little Women

Little women

The latest adaptation of Little Women stars Saoirse Ronan (top left) as Jo March and is adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig.

 

I’m sure when most of you learned of Little Women about to be released, I bet most of you thought ‘not another Little Women adaptation.’ I admit I had those feelings at the start. However I was surprised to see how well it turned out.

In 1868, Jo March is a teacher in New York City. She has writing ambitions and takes her writing frequently to Mr. Dashwood who will publish her writing… under considerable editing. Her younger sister Amy is in Paris under the guidance of her elder Aunt March who never married and despises the idea of marriage. She meets her love from back home, Laurie and invites her to a party, in which he gets drunk to her dismay. Jo’s writing ambitions are kept alive by a professor named Friedrich Bhaer who supports her work but is constructive but blunt in his critiquing of her works. However Jo has to put everything on hold when she receives a letter that her younger sister Beth is sick. She has to return back home.

The film flashes back to the winter of 1861 in Massachusetts, just after the March’s father goes off to the Civil War, and the March sisters all dress up and prepare for a party where Jo meets Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor Mr. Laurence, for the first time. Just before Christmas dinner, the mother Marmee encourages the girls to give their food to their Mrs. Hummer and her group of hungry children. The girls return with a plentiful Christmas dinner thanks to Mr. Laurence and a letter from their father who just started fighting. During the trip, Jo is invited by her single elder Aunt March to come to Paris with her. Also during that winter, Amy is strapped by a teacher for her drawing in class and Laurie takes her in to his Latin lesson before her family arrives.

It’s obvious as Amy has artistic ambitions and Jo has writing ambitions, their ambitions clash, often violently. One night as Jo is out with the family for an occasion, Amy burns the notes to her novel. Jo discovers upon returning, and a violent fight ensued. However all animosity ends when on an occasion while skating, the ice breaks under Amy and is in danger of drowning. Jo saves her. Also during that winter, Mr. Laurence invites Beth to play on his piano as she reminds him of his late daughter.

Returning to 1868, Laurie apologizes to Amy for his drunken behavior the night before. He also begs Amy not to marry Fred Vaughn but marry him instead. That only makes Amy unhappy as she feels she’s ‘second to Jo’ at everything, including Laurie. Amy later rejects Fred’s proposal after she learns Laurie returned to London. Returning back to the past, there was a period of time when Marmee left to visit their father who was wounded during the War. During that time, Beth received a gift from Mr. Laurence: his piano! However she becomes ill with scarlet fever. With a weak heart, it means she might die. Her mother rushes home with their father, already recovered. All come home in time for Christmas and Amy is all better. However returning back to 1868, Amy dies shortly after Jo arrives from her train trip.

The film flashes back to the past on the day Meg is about to be married. Jo doesn’t want her to marry, feeling Meg doesn’t want to marry, but Meg reminds her Jo’s ambitions may be different from Meg’s ambitions, but they’re still her ambitions. It’s on the day of the wedding Aunt March announces she will take Amy to Paris instead of Jo. Laurie admits his feelings for Jo after the wedding, but Jo insists she doesn’t have the same feelings.

Returning back to 1868, a devastated Amy returns home with a dying Aunt March. Jo starts to wonder if she has second thoughts of her love to Laurie. She writes a letter confessing her feelings, but she soon learns Amy accepted Laurie’s proposal and rejected Fred Vaughn’s proposal. Jo later agrees with Laurie to just be friends. After she throws her letter of love to Laurie in the river, she’s inspired to write her novel about her and her sisters.

She takes the novel to Mr. Dashwood who dismisses it because he believes a lead protagonist female who marries is what sells novels. Mr. Dashwood is given a change of heart when he learns his own young daughters love the story. However he’s still skeptical and wants Jo to make the lead protagonist marry. Jo is at first against it as it is sacrilegious to her work. However she compromises, but on one condition. She gets a $500 up-front publishing payment and more than the original 5% profits promised. She starts at 10% but compromises at 6.6%. The novel Little Women is set to be published and the school Jo and her sisters wanted to open is opened in what was Aunt March’s house with Bhaer teaching children at the school.

This may be a film adapted from a novel written in 1868, but as one watches, one would be surprised to see its relevance for today. This may be a story set around the time of the US Civil War and in New England, but there are a lot of similarities to the present. One common theme is the competitiveness of sisters. We still have that. Ask any woman who comes from a family with a lot of girls! There’s also the story of women with desires and ambitions. Today’s young women have possibly the biggest ever ambitions for their future. Women may have had it rougher a century and a half ago, but it makes clear the ambitions the women shared, whether it be career ambitions, romance ambitions or artistic ambitions. We should remember from history that women had to work during the war while the men were fighting and that started suffrage groups and the first feminist groups. There’s dealing with dashing but stupid men, as seen in Laurie. There’s support and encouragement from others. There’s also the bond of the family. First of the March girls all live with their mother Marmee as they’re waiting for their father to come home from the war. Even dealing with the heartbreak of a sister that died too soon.

For those that read the novel Little Women, I feel the reason why it became so popular is that women could see mirror images of themselves in the March sisters. They shared similar goals, similar trials, similar ambitions and similar dreams. Here in the film, I felt the characters of the March girls were made to look very relatable to most young females of today.

Now Little Women has already been adapted into a film many times before. In fact this is the seventh film adaptation of the novel if you even include adaptations as far back as the silent era. To make people welcome a film adaptation of this in the present, there would have to be a freshness or a twist that works. Having it a case where Beth is one with no intentions to marry is a risky thing. I feel it did the smart thing by having it a case where Jo is the author of Little Women and trying to market it, and using the money to build the school, is a brave decision. I don’t think it does anything too sacrilegious to the book. In fact the character of Jo is to mirror that of Louisa. What the film does is actually give two alternatives of Jo: the Jo that’s common in the novel and the Jo who’s more of a reflection of Louisa’s own life and strong will when she deals with Mr. Dashwood. It’s a unique twist for Greta to make it happen. Plus instead of it defying the story, it actually adds a unique twist to it that works.

Top accolades of the film should go to director Greta Gerwig. This could have been another rehash of a commonly-adapted novel. Instead Greta adapts the story to make it very relatable to young women in today’s world and even adding a twist to the story without ruining the dignity of the original story. Gerwig bends instead of breaks. Even the constant flashes between the past and present work well. The best acting comes from Saoirse Ronan. Again she does an excellent acting performance that adds dimension and charm and speaks to the audience. Florence Pugh is also great as Amy: Jo’s most rivalrous sister and very good at stealing the show from Jo at times. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are also very good as sisters Meg and Beth. Laura Dern is also good as Marmee, but her role is limited in dimension. Meryl Streep is also given a brief role as Miss March, but she delivers a character that commands your attention each time. Timothee Chalamet was good as the idiotic Laurie, but I feel he didn’t act 1860’s-ish enough.

The film also has a lot of great standout technical efforts too. There’s the costuming of Jacqueline Durran, there’s the score composition from Alexandre Desplat, the set design from Jess Gonchor and Claire Kaufman and there’s the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux.

The most recent adaptation of Little Women does the book justice, but it adds a twist at the end. I’m sure even the biggest fans of the novel will be happy how the film turns out.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is about a 17 year-old girl (played by Saoirse Ronan) dealing with her life and her future, and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) trying to steer her in the right direction.

Lady Bird is a top contender for this year’s Academy Awards. If you’ve seen it, you can see how this film is not a typical ‘teen movie’ and actually a story with a lot packed in.

Christine McPherson is a frustrated 17 year-old girl living in Sacramento in 2002. She has a stormy relationship with her parents as well as her adoptive brother and his girlfriend. To make things more frustrating, she’s put in Catholic school for Grade 12 because there was a shooting at her public school. She appears unclear about her life direction and frequently insists that all people refer to her as ‘Lady Bird,’ including family.

Starting school, she has a close friendship with Julie Steffans whom she joins the drama club with. Through the club, she meets a sweet talented boy named Danny O’Neill. They soon start dating and they appear to be a match made in heaven until Lady Bird catches Danny in a bathroom stall kissing another boy.

Throughout her time at the school, Lady Bird develops a mean streak of rebelliousness. One minute, she’s consuming Eucharist wafers with Julie. The next, she vandalizes the nuns’ car with a sing saying “Just married to Jesus.” Another moment, she lashes out at a pro-life speaker who visits her school, which leads to a two-week suspension. This leads to a lot of friction with her friend Julie who sees her as one who does things for attention.

During this time, it all leads to a lot of friction with her mother Marion, who has a lot of high expectations for Lady Bird and her life, especially with applying for colleges. Marion often feels that Lady Bird lacks goals or appears like she doesn’t want to do anything meaningful with her life. Marion feels that way because she had to work hard to achieve. This generation gap appears to Lady Bird that her mother is an interference to her life and her own goals. To make family struggles worse, her father loses his job and is struggling with depression.

Lady Bird tries to escape from those headaches. She gets a job at a cafe where she meets Kyle Schieble, a boy from school she knows is part of a rock band. She strays away from Julie and starts hanging out with popular girl Jenna Walton. She sees opportunity after Jenna was reprimanded by the school for wearing short skirts. Thus Lady Bird bring Jenna into the ‘just married to Jesus’ prank. However none of her efforts to mix with the ‘cool kids’ works out. She lied to Jenna about her house so she can fit in, but Jenna finds the truth out. Also she agrees to have sex with Kyle, believing his claim that he’s a virgin, only to find out he’s had other girls before.

As graduation nears, things change for the better for Lady Bird. She gets a letter from a college in New York saying she’s on the waiting list, though she tells her mother she’s been accepted. She’s willing to go shopping for a prom dress with her mother. Her relationship with her brother and his girlfriend gets better as he gets a major job. On prom night, she forsakes a party with Jenna and Kyle to meet up with Julie. There, she rekindles the friendship and they go to the prom together. She even attends Danny’s school performance.

Over at the graduation party, Lady Bird admits to her mother that she was on the waiting list to the university in New York, to which Marion appears either hurt or angry. Lady Bird’s 18th birthday comes soon after. Marion has a letter written for Lady Bird to read when she’s settled in her college dorm. Then it’s the flight to New York. Marion does not talk to Lady Bird, appearing like she’s disappointed with her. Marion even drives away when Lady Bird enters the airport, but cries soon after. It’s in her first month in New York after reading the letter and a near-fatal bout of alcohol poisoning that she leaves a heartfelt message to her mother.

The biggest quality of this film is that it’s a story many people can relate to. Sure, it’s about a 17-year-old tart-tongued girl from Sacramento who’s clueless about which direction to go, but one will find themselves relating to this story. Many can watch what Lady Bird is going through at school, through her job, through falling in love, or through her stormy relationship with her mother and say: “That’s also what I went through,” or “That was my attitude at 17,” or “I knew someone like that.”

One of the things is about the character of Lady Bird is that despite her eccentricities, it also captures the essence of being a seventeen year-old well. Seventeen is that bizarre age where one is just a year away from becoming an adult. It’s a bumpy road as they are in the process of defining one’s self and making choices of what direction in life they want to pursue. We see that in all of the seventeen year-old characters in the film like Julie, the best friend who’s a social misfit, Jenna who thinks she’s too cool, Kyle who thinks he’s all that just like every rock star, and Danny who’s struggling with being gay in a conservative Catholic family.

Lady Bird is at the centre of being seventeen. The character of Lady Bird captures being 17 in a lot of its best traits, but also in some of its worst traits too. Lady Bird is all about her self-definition where she feels she has to find herself in the drama club. Lady Bird is one who also still feels social pressures despite her individualism and tries to fit in with the cool students despite leaving close friends behind. Lady Bird is also about her spiritual confusion too. She wants to be an individual and think for herself, even rebel against the Catholic Church at times, but somehow shows that she longs to believe in a god despite her rebellion.

Lady Bird is also about having that teen frustration towards her parents, especially her mother. In fact, the mother-daughter relationship between Lady Bird and Marion has to be one of the biggest elements of the film, if not the biggest. Lady Bird has desires for her life, but Marion has goals for her. Often Lady Bird feels she has to explode at Marion, but she learns to calm down and have the normal frustration a 17 year-old has to their mother. As for parent-teen relations, the film is also about Marion too. The personalities of Marion and Lady Bird are like oil and water trying to mix. Marion had her own upbringing and her own difficulties resonate in her personality and even how she raises Lady Bird. Marion feels that the best way she can steer Lady Bird down the right path is to tell her off about her misdoings and wrong directions. She has expectations for Lady Bird, but often feels she falls short. Over time, Marion becomes more accepting of Lady Bird, but she does show disappointment when she finds out Lady Bird lied about her application. That scene near the end where Marion is unemotional in the ride to the airport but cries after dropping Lady Bird off is an example of her personality.

I’m sure many people first thought that this film would be about Lady Bird Johnson. The funniest thing about this film is that there is not a single reference to the former First Lady! Not even a case of one of her classmates uttering out: “Hey Lady Bird, where’s LBJ?”

The true star of the film isn’t exactly an actor, but writer/director Greta Gerwig. After years of having an acting career of mixed results, she came up with this story that is not completely biographical. There are some similarities in Lady Bird that tie into Greta’s own teenage years, but Gerwig insists it’s its own story. Whatever the situation, Gerwig did an excellent job of constructing an entertaining story about a 17 year-old that anyone could relate to. I’m sure anyone no matter what race or gender can identify with moments in Lady Bird to moments in their own life at 17.

Additional top kudos go to Saoirse Ronan for delivering a character that is quirky, but shares a lot of common traits of teens. She does an excellent job of making the role of Lady Bird multi-dimensional. Also worthy of praise is the performance of Laurie Metcalf. She succeeds in turning this film into Marion’s story as much as it is Lady Bird’s story. She’s good at capturing the essence of the mother of a teenager both inside and out. She also does a good job of blending in Marion’s own personality traits of hardship and having a hard attitude. Laurie’s also very good at leaving out all traces of Jackie from Roseanne. Fans of the show would be surprised how different she acts here.

The actors in their supporting roles also did a great job of owning their moment. The most noticeable being Beanie Feldstein as the best friend who sometimes appears to be Lady Bird’s better half, Lucas Hedges as a boy who loves to act but is troubled by his sexuality in school, Timothee Chalamet as the teenage bad boy girls drool over but parents hate, Stephen McKinley Henderson as the priest that’s troubled on the inside, Jordan Rodrigues as the brother caught in the middle, and Tracy Letts as the father trying to make sense of it all.

Lady Bird is a quirky and humorous film about a mother-daughter relationship and the difficulties of being seventeen. Despite its off-the-wall humor, it’s also deep and touching and will resonate with the audience.

DVD Review: Jackie

Jackie

Natalie Portman showcases a deep personal angle of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie most of us never saw.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing Jackie. I mean there have already been enough made-for-TV movies of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. The film would not only have to justify being made but also its big-screen release.

The film begins with a journalist interviewing Jackie Kennedy in her home just days after JFK’s assassination. It’s like one minute she’s the First Lady living in the White House and the next, she’s a young widowed mother living in a private home miles away. The journalist begins with small talk but the questions move to the assassination and the aftermath.

It is from that point the film flashes back to various moments. Moments when Jackie and John attended Camelot: a musical JFK was captivated by. Moments like Jackie right after the shooting cleaning the blood off her clothes. Moments like being comforted by Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman whom Jackie would later confide in. Moments like making funeral plans. Moments like her dealing with the priest and her questioning her faith more than ever.

It’s moments like those where Jackie feels more lost than ever as a person. It’s moments like these where Jackie wonders what to leave as a legacy for her husband. It’s during that time she uncovers truths many tried to hide from her, but she knew. It’s also moments when Jackie learns to be strong on the inside. In the end, she regains her faith while talking to the priest. In the end, she makes the final decisions on her husband’s funeral. In the end, she chooses to have her husband’s legacy remembered as ‘Camelot.’

Now keep in mind when this film came out, I was not too interested in seeing it. I mean the role of Jackie Kennedy has been included in too many made-for-TV film. When I saw this film about to be released, I was thinking “This film had better justify its big screen format.” This is not just simply a film that’s a biography. This film focuses on Jackie not even during ten days of her life. This is one of the most critical times of her life as she went from being Jackie Kennedy to a widow in an instant. Many of us know a lot of Jackie Kennedy, but this film presents an angle of Jackie Kennedy few of us knew. The smile and happy charm of Jackie Kennedy we are all familiar with is now replaced with a Jackie Kennedy that is hurting inside. She feels like she’s nothing without JFK. Her faith both in God and in the magic of Camelot has been challenged to more than what she can handle. She even feels like she’s worthless as a mother to her children. That was Jackie right after JFK died. That was Jackie those many days later dealing with the journalist.

We also see another angle to Jackie. This film goes through scenes happening in various moments of time in Jackie’s life. We see some scenes when JFK was still alive but most scenes are various times after his assassination. With those scenes, we see the different aspect of Jackie few knew. We have always known Jackie Kennedy the First Lady to be charming, charismatic, sweet and outgoing. Here in the film, we notice that Jackie is not the prissy, naive Jackie as most of us thought she was. She knew of her husband’s infidelity. She knew of Wanted For Treason posters published by dissenters days before his assassination. She did have concern about tax dollar use for her husband’s funeral. She even considered her publicity an interference: “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” She even questioned her faith with the priest. These are all aspects most never knew of Jackie Kennedy. However the film also shows Jackie as a person who doesn’t lose faith in the things she believes in. Despite going through the hardest moment of her life, she still finds the inner strength to keep her faith in God and to believe in the power of books and theatre. “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us.” That would take a lot for someone to still believe in especially after what happened.

This is an excellent breakthrough film for Pablo Llarain. This is his first English-language feature and he does a very good job in directing the story and scenes. Also done well is the script from writer Noah Oppenhein. He’s most famous as the scriptwriter for The Maze Runner. Jackie is a big change of pace for him. It’s very common nowadays to do films of a certain famous person and have it focus on a certain brief period of their life instead of the common biography-style film you’d expect. It’s done many times in films like The Queen, Capote and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It’s also a difficult challenge because in doing so, they have to construct a story that looks like it sums up the protagonists lifetime in that brief period of time. Oppenheim succeeded in constructing a very 3D Jackie Kennedy in that brief period of her life.

It’s not just Oppenheim’s story of Jackie that worked well but also the performance of Natalie Portman. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of having Portman play Jackie Kennedy. She did not come as the type of personality to play her at first. However Portman did an excellent job in her portrayal of Natalie and portraying the personal traits and feeling of Jackie in the scenes of the story. The film also shows an excellent maturity in the acting of Natalie Portman. Sometimes we forget she was 35 when she was filming this film and Jackie Kennedy was 34 when this incident happened. This film shows Natalie’s acting maturity very well. For all intents and purposes, Jackie Kennedy was the role with the most depth and range in the film. Nevertheless there were supporting performances that delivered well despite their limited range, like Peter Saarsgard and Bobby Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman. The costuming from Madeline Fontaine and the music from Mica Levi also added to the quality of the film.

Jackie did justify its big screen format in the end. It’s an excellent film about carrying grace under such devastating heartbreak and reminded us why we admire Jackie Kennedy so much.