Little Women (US, 2019)

Anything but little

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (US, 2017) didn’t impress me but Little Women is a brilliant adaptation and is likely to be one of the best films I see this year. I’ve been trying to read Louisa M Alcott’s novel for a few months but find it a struggle as it is too treacly. Gerwig’s decision to put chop the narrative’s chronology pays off for me because it enables us to directly compare the young adults with their childish selves. Indeed, the degree to which Gerwig has sliced the narrative is extremely impressive as she usually offers parallels between the events happening to the younger and elder versions. The scenes where Jo (Saorise Ronan – brilliant as always) awakes in bed and goes downstairs to find out something significant is shot in exactly the same way (apart from the lighting) and this adds immense power to already emotive events. I have little interest in the Oscars, they are fetishised as being the ‘be all and end all’ of cinematic art, but the absence of Gerwig from the ‘best director’ list simply reinforces my belief that the awards are useless and even celebrate ineptitude (take a bow Tarantino). The only false note I noticed, in the direction, was an unnecessary close-up of Jo’s fidgeting fingers to convey her nervousness in the opening scene; Ronan doesn’t need such help.

I’m struggling to understand the original novel’s classic status as it is particularly anodyne. For example, the scene where Beth falls into the ice covered pond has zero drama in the novel, unlike the film. Presumably its classic status is due to the fact that it is a relatively rare example of a ‘coming of age’ narrative for females hence I don’t get it.

The editing (Nick Houy) is exceptionally good as it seamlessly (to the extent you’re not always clear what ‘time’ we are in) splices the flashbacks/forwards; though, again, much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s script.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier versions of the novel but there’s no doubt that this is one that is about 2020; I’m not sure it has much to say about post-Civil War America but that could be my ignorance. There is a fleeting reference to slavery but even here Laura Dern, playing the ‘little women’s’ mum (Marmee), the reference is contemporary: when saying, to a black woman, she was ashamed of her country, the reply is, “You should still be.” Marmee then agrees she still is; a clear reference to Trump’s America. The decision to use the same actors in both the young and older roles, unlike the other versions, partly explains the occasional confusion of ‘when’ we are but benefits as it gives us a greater continuity of character; it’s easier to understand how they change when we can see they are the same person. Despite their excellent, the actors can’t quite carry off being children but it’s a small loss.

Part of the modernity of the film comes from Gerwig grafting a metafiction narrative onto the original suggesting that Jo wrote Little Women. Gerwig said that the conversation that Jo has with the publisher about women in fiction, that they must get married by the end or the story has no appeal, was the same conversation that she had with producers when trying to get the film made (interview in Sight & Sound, February).

Little Women is an example of that the realitvely rare mid-budget Hollywood film, reported at $40m, and – despite the fact it would apparently only appeal to women! – has doubled that after three weekends in North America alone; it’s also taken over $10m in UK and Ireland. It was also designed as an ‘awards movie’, its middle brow characteristics, as well as its starry cast, are designed to get at least nominations which would boost the marketing. The best marketing is word-of-mouth and the relatively small weekly drops in the box office, and imdb’s 8.3, show this has been very positive for Little Women.

It is a heart-warming film but that’s despite the commonplace difficulties and tragedies in life the film portrays. Indeed, the meta-fictional ending brilliantly allows audiences to have the happy ending and understand its contrivance. There’s a marvellous ambiguity as to Jo’s marital status and she seems more enamoured with the first printing of her book than any man; apparently Jo is something of a Queer hero.

I’ve mentioned Ronan, but all the women are superb: Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan and Emma Watson. The support is uniformly fabulous: Chris Cooper (behind bristles), Timothée Chalamet, James Norton and Meryl Streep. Credit foremost must go to Gerwig, who hopefully will become a major player in Hollywood as she clearly wants to tell important tales, particularly about women.

El Dorado (US, 1966)

Hollywood greats

It’s easy to imagine John Wayne and Howard Hawks deciding to, just as De Niro and Scorsese did with The Irishman, do what they knew would work. So they made what was essentially a remake of Rio Bravo, of seven years earlier; Leigh Brackett is one writer common to both though the source material is different. Now it is difficult to get non-franchise films made (even if you are a bone fide star-director partnership), then it was the fading Wayne and 70-year-old Hawks who were scrambling around for something the studios would accept. In 1966 the majors had lost the plot and it’s unlikely that reported $6m domestic box office (the_numbers) encouraged further backing of old school westerns. Hawks directed one more film, Rio Lobo, also starring Wayne, released in 1970; although Wayne did win an Oscar for True Grit (1969) that took $31m.

It’s many years since I’d seen either Rio Bravo or El Dorado and was motivated to catch the screening of the latter on Film4 after recently reading biographies of Robert Mitchum and John Ford (in which Wayne figured prominently). I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film, even though its sexual politics, amongst other things, is inevitably of its time. Much of the entertainment comes, of course, from the stars; no matter how execrable Wayne was as a person, he was great film star. By that I mean he perfectly embodied his persona as a self-reliant but moral man. Mitchum seemingly lazily (the biography by Lee Server confirms that Mitchum was invariably the consummate professional) just seems to be himself: the art of concealing art. He’s good at comedy, too, as shown when he’s caught having a bath virtually in public.

Mitchum plays the drunk sheriff role and I expected his alcoholism would be played purely for laughs. However, it wasn’t; the looks of disgust that Wayne’s character gives is sufficient to show how pathetic being a drunk is. I’d be interested to see Rio Bravo again and whether Dean Martin’s character is similarly treated.

Although the women are secondary, and Charlene Holt’s ‘love interest’ in Wayne (over 20 years her senior but the gap looks bigger) is rather risible, there is a nod to the ’60s in Michele Carey’s ‘tomboy’ Joey who gets to do the ‘Liberty Valence’ shot. The Mexicans, including an inevitable Pedro, are less than secondary though it is noticeable how Wayne’s character speaks Spanish to them and is always respectful.

Maybe these old school westerns aren’t as reactionary as I imagine them to be.

Harriet (US, 2019)

Women doing it for themselves

I knew the name Harriet Tubman and her reputation as a woman who rescued slaves after rescuing herself; however, I had no idea what a ‘super hero’ she was. African American women, in particular, struggle to be heard and the fact that Kasi Lemmons has managed to direct five features since her debut Eve’s Bayou (US, 1997) is a testament to her determination. She wrote the script, based on work by Gregory Allen Howard, but was always going to struggle to present Tubman’s life fully in a two-hour film. As it is, the early scenes, when she was a slave, rattle along quickly in the nature of biopics before settling to a slightly more sedate dramatic development. As postscripts, Tubman’s gobsmacking role in the civil war is covered in one scene and the last 50 years of her life via a caption.

I struggled at first to engage with the film, Terence Blanchard’s lush American-pastoral score alienated me, and the scenes of plantation cruelty seemed a bit passé when compared to, say, 12 Years a Slave. Though Lemmons herself stated she wished to avoid the clichés of presenting plantation life as this was a ‘freedom film’. However, once Tubman (as she renamed herself) escaped, the jaw-dropping bravery of the woman (which would be unbelievable in fiction) ensures the narrative is gripping. As the film notes, in the end credits, some of the scenes are fictionalised, however the portrayal of the essential truth of what Tubman did is enough to forgive any dramatic embellishments.

Tubman became a conductor on the underground railway, a route managed by abolitonists who helped runaways escape to the north. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, The Underground Railway (2016), is better at portraying the bravery of those involved, but that wasn’t Harriet‘s subject. British actor Cynthia Erivo is sensational in the lead and Janelle Monáe brings great charisma to a supporting role. In an industry were colour wasn’t a bar Monáe would be a fully fledged film star (though she may not want to be one as she has plenty of other interests).

The film has done decent business in America; to date it’s almost reached the box office of 12 Years a Slave that was more of a (relative) hit in the UK. There were three of us in the cinema for the screening I attended showing that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is the exception rather than the rule for ‘black themed’ films in the UK. Of course, the idea of ‘black themed’ is racist nonsense as ‘white themed’ is never mentioned as we are assumed to be universal.

I particularly liked the use of songs, for example when Tubman tells her mother she has to leave she sings her farewell whilst her mother is working in the field. These were the songs the underground railway used to communicate, necessary because most of the slaves were kept illiterate. Wikipedia tells me:

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd“. [1] The song’s title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough.

The message being, ‘go north’. Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, a mere 100 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Eviro has a beautiful voice and came to fame via the musical version of The Color Purple on Broadway; she was also in Widows.

Harriet is an essential film because of what it tells us about humanity: the best and the worst. Everyone would be better for seeing it.

Joker (US-Canada, 2019)

It’s not funny

Superhero films no longer interest me but, fortunately, this isn’t a superhero film. I saw the teaser trailer about six months ago and couldn’t place what type of cinema it was. The grim mise en scene, and disturbing characterisation, suggested arthouse-indie so it was a major surprise to see it was a Warner Bros. film. It’s done superhero level box office, despite its tangential relationship to the Batman franchise; in fact Joker‘s at its weakest when it hints at it being a Joker origin story. Of course, it is set in Gotham City but the film is successful because it focuses on Arthur Fleck’s mental illness. One of the conditions he suffers from is uncontrollable inappropriate laughter; if only for the way Joaquin Phoenix performs that, his is a great performance.

Phoenix doesn’t have to carry the whole film because the production design (Mark Friedberg), cinematography (Lawrence Sher) and direction (Todd Phillips) are all excellent. That Phillips has managed to make, for him, such an uncharacteristic film is surprising as he’s known for comedy (principally the Hangover series, 2009-13); Dave Holmes summarised the reasons behind the genre switch in Esquire:

In a new Vanity Fair cover profile of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he left comedy to direct his new dark comic book drama Joker: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” And then, having said those words out loud in a room where other people could hear him, I swear to God he kept talking: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?”

I’m surprised that anyone stupid enough to use the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument could then make (he also co-scripted) such an intelligent film. It is one of the highest grossing R-rated movies in North America but the gross-out violence is restricted to one scene and there’s an interesting under-current that maybe tapping into the growing realisation that billionaires are a problem and not role models. Phillips wisely channels Scorsese; when watching I assumed the setting was representative of New York in the 1970s but apparently it is 1981. Regardless, there’s no doubt that we are seeing the ‘mean streets’ of Taxi Driver (1976) and celebrity culture is skewered in the same way as Scorsese did in The King of Comedy (1982). Joker shares the latter’s of casting of Robert De Niro and whilst such homages don’t normally work for me, here the combination was perfect: De Niro now playing the Jerry Lewis role.

Beyond the bravura of performance and mise en scene, the focus on mental illness humanises the film. Fleck scrawls notes in his book including ‘the problem is normal people expect the mentally ill to act normal’ (I paraphrase). Phoenix brings pathos to the role of a ‘loser’ who never had a chance; though I think the idea that he  represents ‘incels’ is wide of the mark. While he clearly is a lonely single male who fancies and fantasises about his beautiful neighbour (Zazie Beetz), that isn’t shown to be the cause of his inability to function in society. Obviously it depends on how you read the film and I guess wingnuts on the right might think that Fleck is a role model rather than someone who needs serious help (budget cuts curtail his social worker support).

And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is brilliant; it has sufficient bombast for the chase sequences but it is its use of plangent strings, channeling bleak Icelandic folk, that elevates it out of the routine. Its otherworldliness is a perfect emblem of Fleck’s disordered mind.

A Holllywood blockbuster likely to be one of my film’s of the year; who’d’ve thought it?

Miles Ahead (US, 2015)

Cheadle ahead

Biopics that attempt to cover a whole life rarely work as life doesn’t readily crush into a two-hour narrative; an alternative is to focus on a particular time with flashbacks to key moments, which works much better. The ‘moment’ in Don Cheadle’s (it is his: he stars, co-wrote, directed, produced) film is the silence Davis ‘endured’ during the ’70s. I’ve been a Miles fan for years and was soon wrapped up in Cheadle’s fantastic performance and, after some irritating camerawork of the framing interview, at the start, directs well. Above all, it is the convincing realisation of the music that stands out; it wasn’t hard to think we were watching Miles, and many other jazz greats (in the flashbacks), at play. Plaudits also to Hannah Beachler’s production design and Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography.

Although authenticity is important, the film also deploys a fictional character as a foil. Ewen MacGrego, rchannelling Renton, plays a Scottish journalist who’s trying to blag an exclusive interview. MacGregor at one point tells Miles he couldn’t remember what happened because he ‘was offa ma tits’ (drunk): Cheadle-Mile’s incomprehension is brilliant. Cheadle also uses some extreme close-ups which, along with the soundtrack, give expressionist moments which serve to portray Miles’ state of mind rather than simply showing what was happening.

The film does not ignore Miles’ faults: his treatment of his wife, superbly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is shown to be riven by the sexism of the time. He tells her to give up her career so he can look after her. Why were (are) men threatened by strong women? His addictions are also shown for what they were.

In comparison, a recent film that uses the same narrative technique to portray a star, Judy, relies too heavily on the (superb) performance of Renee Zellwegger. The flashbacks here focus on The Wizard of Oz, but miss out on the 1940s, the years of Garland’s greatest stardom. The film’s thesis is her treatment, as a 17-year-old, by Louis B Mayer, blighted her life. While I’m sure that’s true, anyone unfamiliar with Garland wouldn’t get a sense of how big a star she was so the ‘fall’ in the ’60s is slightly less a tragedy. Miles Ahead both fleshes out the milieux of the time and Miles’ seminal musical moments sufficiently to understand how his ’70s hiatus was significant.

Music is key to the success of the film and you do get a sense of eavesdropping on the creation of great music: for example, Miles working with the Evanses, Bill and Gil. Most of all, it pushes you back to the Mile’s great albums.

Ad Astra (US, 2019)

Retrograde

Brad Pitt’s Plan B has a history of producing interesting films, using Pitt’s star power to help with the financing; 12 Years a Slave is a prime example. Ad Astra is a bit different in that it is a big budget (in the region of $100m) action film seeking a large audience; but it also has pretensions to thoughtfulness. In theory it should have been visual and intellectual treat: it only offers the visuals.

Pitt’s assigned a humanity-saving mission to Neptune but it is also an Oedipal journey. The latter is intended to give the film intellectual heft but is merely a retread of retrograde tropes of masculinity. Pitt can do, and does in this film, sensitivity but the script is such a mess that neither the science nor the psychological aspects are successful. It’s written by the director James Gray and Ethan Gross and while it’s not necessary that the science necessarily makes sense for good drama there are far too many stretches to the narrative. I’m not sure how long it would take to send and receive and message to Neptune from Mars but I am certain you wouldn’t hang around waiting for the answer: it would take a good few hours. Even the psychological elements don’t make sense: I really have little idea what happens at the ultimate father-son confrontation. It’s more a flop than climax.

There a number of gratuitous action sequences (a buggy chase on the moon and mad primates on a spaceship) that add nothing to the narrative and presumably are present only to ensure the ‘popcorn crowd’ are kept happy. Action and ideas are not anathema and could be combined.

Patriarchy is still raging in 2019 but is increasingly desperate; like a dinosaur bewildered by the changing climate. There are women in the film but they’re mere ciphers for Pitt to define himself against. The mixed race casting is heartening but all they do is ratify the hero’s WASP ethnicity. It’s also retrograde in vaunting the American pioneer spirit when it’s clear that, in reality, it is an empire in decline.

The pluses: Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design. Inevitably 2001: A Space Odyssey lurks and I was also reminded of Soderbergh’s version of Solaris (US, 2002). The comparisons on make Ad Astra pale into insignificance; that said, the film has done good business and elicited some rave reviews. I’m not saying all cinematic SF should be like Claire Denis’ High Life but if the makers have more than commercial aspirations they need, particularly in SF, to look forward not backwards to near-Neanderthal representations of gender. I’m sure they were trying to critique ‘heroic masculinity’: they didn’t.

On Dangerous Ground (US, 1951)

The dark soul of noir

Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a brilliant hybrid noir-melodrama where the join between the genres is obvious. The first part of the film takes place in the darkness of the city as Robert Ryan’s troubled cop, Jim Wilson, beats the shit out of ‘pond life’ is followed by a snowy landscape and the blind Mary (Ida Lupino) who may redeem him. Ryan is his usual volcanic self; even when he’s calm an explosion is in the offing. Lupino’s role is a difficult one to pull off; trying to be not sympathetic just because she is blind. Ward Bond,  a right-winger is perfectly cast by left-winger Ray, is the gun-toting vigilante seeking vengeance for his daughter’s death. They are all excellent.

George E Diskant’s cinematography is brilliant: capturing the ink black darkness of the city streets and the almost white-out of snow covered landscape. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, in his biography of Ray, some of the camerawork is handheld. It certainly looked like that in one scene of a beating being meted out by Wilson’s fractured psyche; that must have taken some doing with the heavy cameras. The score is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best so no superlatives need to be used in describing it.

I first saw the film, under the late Victor Perkins’ tutelage, at Warwick University in 1980 and remember thinking the ending ‘corny’. Apparently Lupino and Ryan improvised the final scene, not finding the scripted (by Ray and AI Bezzerides) return of Jim to the city satisfactory. Although it seems to reconcile the two, Ray’s final shot is of a snowbound landscape suggesting that all may not be well.

The antithesis of noir setting

Bezzerides also scripted Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the grimmest of noirs, and On Dangerous Ground dips into the same territory: the ‘under-age’ prostitute (top pic) ejected from the bar by Wilson is seen to be followed out by a man; utilising the code of dissolve/cigarette smoking, Wilson has sex with an informant who is later beaten up for her troubles. There’s a superb opening sequence of Wilson’s ‘team’ preparing for work: two have loving families whilst he lives alone. Ed Begley has a telling cameo as the police Captain who’s more concerned about the quality of his breakfast than on-going investigations.

Ray struggled in the constraints of Hollywood; his career started as the industry started its slow decline which, arguably, is still going on (not financially) but artistically with its over-reliance of remakes and sequels (although the North American box office is creaking under the heap of banality). Ray’s films crop up on television with some regularity but The Lusty Men (1952) is nowhere to be seen.