Review: Little Women (2019)

little women

Who carries off the windswept look better?: Columbia Pictures/New Regency Pictures

There have been plenty of reviews by men that open with “I haven’t read the book but…” and I’m unfortunately going to have to add to that pile. It’s not deliberate ignorance, it’s just a classic I’ve just never gotten round to reading. Whatever your knowledge of Louisa May Alcott’s story beforehand, I can guarantee in the assured hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig and a ridiculously talented cast, LITTLE WOMEN will pull you in to the lives of the March sisters. By the way, Gerwig should have received a Best Director nomination, duh.

Aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) submits some short stories to publishers and looks back on growing up with her three sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) during the American Civil War, a story that may well inspire her own master work.

The story’s framing device of Jo writing, editing and selling Little Women to a publisher is clever, and meta without being smug. It asks us to consider the writing process and an author’s intentions, while highlighting the veritable mountain women had to climb to be taken seriously and maintain their independence in this period.

The storytelling structure that hops back and forth over the years and introduces new memories tied to distinct objects and locations, takes some getting used to. When you’ve got your eye in, though, and you’re completely engrossed it’s a powerful technique. It also helps a great deal to keep track of where we are when Jo gets a haircut.

The March Sisters reminded me very much of the Brontës – the latter artistically-minded siblings getting name-checked at one point by Amy as one of the few women declared geniuses by their contemporaries. They’re all extremely gifted in a particular discipline, as different as they are similar to one another and though loyal to and protective of each other they of course have vicious fallouts – they both petty and monumental – and difficult times aplenty to work through together.

When you’ve got a central foursome this talented it’s really tough to pick out one performance that particularly stands out. Pugh’s Amy is vocal, passionate and gets a great monologue about a woman’s in-built disadvantage in the world even if she marries well. Scanlan’s Beth is always the calming voice in the family, quiet and wise beyond her years (if pushed, she’s my favourite). Watson’s Meg is maternal and keen to settle down but doesn’t want to miss out on too much life either. Ronan’s Jo seems the most independent and headstrong sister but can only put a brave face on her situation for so long, floored by negative criticism of her work and with a late heartbreaking confession that “I’m so lonely” being one of the moments of 2019 film, as is all the tender time she spends with an ailing Beth.

You completely buy why all the March sisters would have fallen head-over-heels for Laurie. He’s got plenty of unlikeable traits, sure, but in Timothée Chalamet’s hands he’s charm and good hair personified. Of course the romantic subplots are a secondary concern to the Marches’ unbreakable relationships with each other, and their happily ever after with the various men (James Norton and Louis Garrel join Chalamet) who aren’t good enough for them is left pleasingly ambiguous.

If the flawless performances, genuine emotions and gorgeous cinematography don’t get you, then Alexandre Desplat’s (having a great few years following THE SHAPE OF WATER) heartstring-strumming score will surely finish you off.

Greta Gerwig is one of the best actor’s directors working today. The way she sees these timeless characters, how she built her cast’s relationships and encouraged her actors to bring something of themselves to the role, to become a real family over the course of the shoot, is absolutely essential to this new take on a well-trod story connecting. Little Women is an absolute joy – wittily funny, truthful and insightful about family, creativity and becoming a fully-rounded person. SSP


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Review: Cats (2019)


You’re gonna need a pick-me-up: Working TitleFilms/Amblin Entertainment

I’m not trying to offend anyone who genuinely enjoys Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit musical – I like some strange things too – but I personally found CATS on stage unbearable. Even the better songs on the soundtrack just cling to your brain like limpets rather than speaking to your heart. I was expecting Tom Hooper’s film adaptation to be at least as terrible, and it is bad, but in some unusual ways and not to the extent that it’s so bad it’s good.

Abandoned cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is found by a tribe of Jellicle cats and prepared for the Jellicle Ball where one cat will be chosen to leave this world for a better one.

Cats as an IP has always had a problem with presenting a compelling story. You can look forward to nearly two hours of every key player introducing themselves in a shallow song describing what their deal is and not doing a lot else. Oh, and everyone’s praying for death and rebirth into whoever they want to be (presumably still a cat). Visually, it could have been as unique an experience as many audiences enjoy on stage, but we all know how the VFX turned out, don’t we?

When you’re not swept up at all by a story and feel no connection to the, well let’s be charitable and call them characters, you notice things you shouldn’t. Who decided which cats do and don’t wear shoes? Who decided to give everyone whiskers but leave human noses and eyebrows? Actors’ faces uncannily grafted to furry, sexless, bottomless bodies (particularly noticeable considering how long some cats spend spread-eagled doing cat tings in the film) was disturbing enough, but then there’s the cockroaches and the m…m-mice…mice with children’s faces. Shudder!

To be fair, you can’t say that the ensemble cast don’t commit, but most of them seem to be in different movies to the others. Francesca Hayward is a solid lead but Victoria isn’t given anything to do besides sing the new song and be in the background of everyone else’s sequences. Playing it far straighter than the material deserves you have Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, but they also stretch out in a basket and lap from a saucer, respectively. Jennifer Hudson blows everyone away as expected in the dramatic singing stakes (as whoever gets to sing “Memories” tends to do) but James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba are pretty bad, full-stop; either on autopilot or relying on their usual schtick.

I don’t think you could accuse it of complete incompetence – there are good singers and dancers in this, the set designs are unique, there’s two pretty well-mounted and entertaining musical numbers (the tap extravaganza “Skimbleshanks” and Taylor Swift’s showstopper “Macavity”). But even the “good” sequences that get by on dancing technical skill or showmanship have too much of an unfinished CG sheen, with the performers popping alarmingly against the backgrounds much as their faces pop against their bodies and the scale of the human world they inhabit the lower portion of remains distractingly inconsistent.

Cats is a bad film and a bad idea from conception. A combination of an unfinished, frightening aesthetic, ping-ponging tone and the musical not being all that to begin with makes it a really difficult watch. The cast don’t phone it in, but most elements that make up the movie should have either been dialed back and refined or pumped all the way up for pure entertainment value. Is it quite bad enough to become a cult classic? Probably not on its own terms, but we’ve got memes now, so who knows… SSP

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1917 (2019) Review SSP

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Review in Brief: For Sama (2019)

How to you begin to describe FOR SAMA? You don’t – you tell others to watch it. It’s not just a documentary, but a chronicle of a remarkable life in the most tragic of circumstances, an important socio-historical document and the purest of emotional odysseys. Documenting the experiences of video journalist Waad Al-Kateab, her husband and her children in bombed-out Aleppo, Al-Kateab is on the front line, in the heart of the chaos, trying to maintain a life among the rubble. No-one in Aleppo escaped the ruination of their city, but Al-Kateab’s need to record the nightmare for the world and for her daughter, in addition to her husband’s vital work at one of the few remaining hospitals, puts her where fighting is the thickest. It might have started as a way to preserve memories of life good and bad for her daughter, but Al-Kateab’s For Sama is now a harrowing, necessary and spiritually restorative documentary for the world. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Two Popes (2019)

THE TWO POPES works for the same reason that THE CROWN on TV works – it treats icons as people, brings them down to the level of the rest of us normal folks. The transition from Pope Benedict to Francis last decade was an interesting one – seldom has a Pope chosen to retire. Showing Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and soon-to-be-Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) ordering in pizza and Fanta to the Vatican is a lovely touch. Having them watch football and bad cop shows from their respective homelands is another. There’s some snappy dialogue that does a lot of the character-building legwork – Francis: “I’m Argentinian, the tango and football are compulsory” / Benedict: “Please do not make a joke of everything I say. It’s dishonest and cynical. Have the respect to show me your real anger” – but the two leads’ subtle and grounded performances help to keep the story involving, even when murky flashbacks intrude. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Nightingale (2018/19)

THE NIGHTINGALE is a gruelling and relentlessly bleak watch, but it’s compelling stuff nonetheless. Jennifer Kent followed up her fascinatingly unique genre debut THE BABADOOK with a dark, raw and grounded historical epic. There’s a captivating core relationship dynamic: an uneasy but necessary relationship between a horrendously wronged Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi, mesmerising) and her Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr, dignified) both with intense distrust of each other that it overridden by their shared loathing of the English soldiers they are in pursuit of. Kent brings across the sheer scale of the journey through a wide range of inhospitable but beautiful landscapes and gives Colonialism a damn good kicking along the way. One late scene doesn’t quite ring true, but it gives us a moment to take a breath before heading for the finish line. The Nightingale’s lived-in performances and the harsh reality of living in a difficult time grabs you from the off and refuses to let go. SSP

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Review: The Irishman (2019)


What’s today’s special?: Tribeca Productions/Sikelia Productions/Netflix

THE IRISHMAN has two of the saddest tracking shots in cinema history; one at the beginning and one at the end, both set in a retirement home and both filled with regret. That’s the prevailing emotion in all of this – regret – but you don’t regret Martin Scorsese staying firmly within his wheelhouse.

The story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who went from a nobody returning from WWII to “painting houses” for the mob when he is taken under the wing of boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Eventually Sheeran is also acting as bodyguard for powerful Teamsters Union Supremo Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), but will this relationship survive Hoffa’s crossing of the gangsters who helped him secure his position?

I’m not an American history buff, I know especially little about this period of the late 50s to mid 70s, so there are true-life happenings here that I’m sure with have more impact on some audience members than they did on me. For all the ambitious decade-spanning, operatic crime melolodrama moments, The Irishman is a film made in the lower-key, mundane breaks from the all the point-blank headshots. Never mind who’s been extorted, whacked or tailored for political office, these are guys who will argue endlessly about timekeeping, etiquette and why you really shouldn’t transport fresh fish on the backseat of your nice car.

The film gifts us with one of the most sinister low-key threat in the Scorsese oeuvre: “It is what it is”. Basically, this is the situation, this is what’s going to be done, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Woe betide anybody who doesn’t take heed of this…

The lead trio are the best they’ve been in a very long time. DeNiro and Pesci have to do a certain amount of underplaying, but Pacino is a crackling live wire. There’s plenty of entertaining back-and forth between the key players and another great Scorsese food scene, this time with Pesci filing the simple act of dressing a salad with menace. You also get reliable supporting players like Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and Stephen Graham being reliable and Anna Paquin making up for a lack of lines with a powerful look that says a thousand words to DeNiro as her neglectful dad.

Scorsese is aware that your age shows in areas other than your face, right? Not so much a problem for the remarkably sprightly 79 year-old Pacino, but DeNiro’s body language doesn’t change in any noticeable way when he’s playing his own age and when he’s playing half his age, which is a problem when he’s the character in the most scenes and whose story pings back and forward in time so frequently. There’s no reason they couldn’t have found younger lookalike actors or used physical doubles for the flashbacks, but no, they just had to show off their new toys. The blue (contact lens? CG-altered) eyes of Frank are also really distracting.

The Irishman is a long sit, but with so much ground to cover, so many characters and plot turns to serve, you rarely feel the time drag. The advantage of being primarily seen on Netflix of course is that you can take you time, have breaks, let it all soak in. It might have worked better as a miniseries, but Scorsese is as we know committed to the concept of “cinema” and would probably see taking that route as cheapening his baby.

The Irishman sees Scorsese comfortably in his wheelhouse but rarely resting on his laurels. He still grows as a filmmaker after 50 years in the profession, refining, reflecting and bringing nuance to each new project. This isn’t quite up there with his very best, but it comes pretty darn close. They still should have kept the title as “I Heard You Paint Houses”, though. SSP

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10 Directors with 3 or More Great Films in the 2010s SSP

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Review in Brief: Tell Me Who I Am (2019)

TELL ME WHO I AM hits like a train. A captivating true story that asks questions about memory, deception, morality and perspective, you won’t be able to shake this one off for a good long while. The crazy true story of identical twin brothers, Alex and Marcus, their unusual upbringing and Marcus’ attempt to fill in Alex’s memories after he is struck with amnesia in an accident. Why wouldn’t Alex hang on Marcus’ every word? The documentary is composed of the brothers’ two voices only with the assistance of brief reconstructed scenes to link their words. This is only right – it’s the story of their unique experience from two different perspectives. What follows retains its power the less you know, but suffice to say it goes to dark, painful places and both brothers are left drained and exposed living (or re-living, depending on the brother) their experience on camera. Powerful stuff. SSP

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Review in Brief: Hail Satan? (2019)

Forget what you think you know about Satanism and Satanists. With engaging voices, convincing arguments and self-aware humour HAIL SATAN? exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of the Land of the Free – freedom of religious expression…as long as you’re Christian. The Satanic Temple adopted “The Adversary” as a figurehead to be seen as an alternative to large organised religions, as welcoming to minorities and willing to debate any viewpoint. We see through the documentary how co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves advocates tirelessly against religious hegemony and discrimination against minority religious groups through debate, compelling evidence (often citing the American Constitution) and public stunts, notably campaigning for a statue of Baphomet to stand next to a statue of the Ten Commandments in Oklahoma. Notably it is not the Satanists who are shown to threaten to get what they want, but Christians. SSP

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