LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS – MEDIOCRE FANTASY WITH A POSSIBLY SINISTER UNDERTONE

SHORT TAKE:

Mediocre fantasy, under utilizing what should have been a winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blachett, with scenes which may just have some truly disturbing motivations behind them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To be safe – adults only.

LONG TAKE:

The House with a Clock in its Walls made me sad, but not in the way that movies are supposed to make you sad, like in Titanic, or Old Yeller, or at the end of Funny Girl.

Maybe it was because it wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was going to be, or maybe it was something more sinister. 

SPOILERS

The premise is of an orphaned boy, Lewis, who is sent to live with his only remaining relative, a reclusive eccentric uncle, Jonathan, (Jack Black), who, it turns out, is a warlock seeking a dangerous magical item, buried within the house, placed there by the house’s previous owner, Isaac, (Kyle MacLachlan). An interesting idea but not well carried out.

First off, there is the acting. I have liked Jack Black ever since he started doing kid and youth films. He is a goofy pleasure in movies like Kung Fu Panda, King Kong and Goosebumps. Cate Blanchett, who plays Jonathan's best friend and antagonist-neighbor Florence, brings an element of class to everything she's in, even the terrible Oceans 8. And of course Blanchett was spectacular as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

However the main character, Lewis, (Owen Vaccaro) was just plain old not very good. Perhaps it was the directing but, for example, when the subject of Lewis' parents' death in a car crash comes up, he tears up and wails so much and unexpectedly, it is as though he is faking it and we're all left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He is unconvincing in other key moments as well, such as when he is supposed to be desperate enough for a friend that he would break his uncle's one rule about not going near a cabinet which contains a forbidden book. There was no effort to convince the audience that Lewis would want to risk his new relationship with his magical uncle.

Maybe it was the inconsistent characters. Lewis comes to the attention of a school favorite named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), who genuinely seems to want to be kind to this new little outcast. But then, suddenly, Tarby is running for a school office, and after getting elected, Tarby becomes a bully. One of the other kids tells Lewis they are not surprised because Tarby does this every election season. This doesn't make any sense because there is very little Tarby has to gain from the friendship with Lewis. 

This turnabout is so awkward, sudden and confusing that I thought, surely, there was more to this character. Is he possessed by the evil ghost of Isaac? IS he the evil Isaac in disguise, and was just using Lewis to gain access to the house? This latter theory seemed to be further encouraged by Tarby's instant and pointed desire to open the one cabinet in the house Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan told him he must never go near, as though Tarby knew all along the forbidden book was there. But no, Tarby is just a mean kid who likes to be nice randomly but only for a few days and serves as a convenient shoe-horned plot device. Sorry, but that's just bad writing.

Then there is Jonathan’s back story. Jonathan left home because he wished to pursue magic and simply assumed his little sister, Lewis' mother, did not want anything to do with him. So much so that Jonathan did not even go to her funeral. Yet without question Jonathan accepts that his sister would have sent her only child to live with him. These two points are inconsistent. Jonathan never has a real moment or explanation as to why he would be so deeply alienated with his sister. And no explanation as to why he would, without question, believe his sister would leave her only child in his care. Which is it? Did Jonathan believe his sister hated him or not?

The movie has so many misdirections, without purpose, that I got the feeling it was written backwards, with the ending in sight but little attention to making sure the path to it from the introduction made sense. And whenever the writer had to get from point A to Point B he just sewed on a patch to make the two plot points connect.

AND – OH YEAH – the clock turns out to be "under the boiler". I'm sorry, but in what universe does "under the boiler" put it therefore "— in the Walls"?

Also, I’m not sure what demographic audience they were going for. It’s silly enough that it should attract a young child crowd – fart jokes and Addams Family-like purple monster snake-tarantulas, standing up to bullies in middle school and ooh aah moments of solar systems coming to life in the living room.

But then there are extremely creepy scenes which would make the movie unacceptable for that same young group: poisoning evil anthropomorphized mannequins to death, violent repeated shaking preceding transformations much like the very disturbing way Penny-Wise the Clown shook in the modern It, a dead mother, (portrayed by Lorenza Izzo, now the estranged wife of the director Eli Roth) appearing in her son’s dreams to get him to seek out a forbidden book, necromancy, having truck with a forked tongued demon who actually licks blood off one of the character’s hands – basically a 7th book Harry Potter aimed at first Harry Potter book-aged children.

Then there is the more sinister aspect of the flaws.

There is an expression I learned in business: The Appearance of Impropriety. That is when, even if your motives are pure as a newborn baptized baby, there are just some things you should avoid doing. For example, whenever my husband drove our babysitters home, he would always tell our kids, "Come on! Let's all go for a ride!" and away a pack of them would go to keep the baby sitter company on the ride. He and I rightly believe that an adult male alone in a car with a young person not his own child is just not appropriate.

And, we do not much care for casinos in our community, so we boycott them. When a close friend held his daughter's wedding reception at one of the casinos’ restaurants, it was with great regret that we had to decline to attend the party. Had we gone, it would have seemed as though we were endorsing the casino. In both cases, we were avoiding The Appearance of Impropriety.

In The House, I am not saying that the character of Uncle Jonathan is doing anything wrong. He keeps his distance, had not sought out the child but was assigned the responsibility of raising his dead sister's son. But the writers left certain bread crumbs that perhaps it would have been better in the current environment not to have sown.

For example, near the end Jonathan is youthened to a baby but left with an adult head. This puts Lewis in a position of carrying around a naked adult in miniature. After Jonathan is restored, while hiding behind some equipment, he asks Lewis to throw him his pants, but more damningly, asks Lewis not to tell anyone that he, Jonathan, was left naked.

Given the circumstances, this is awkward at best. In the current climate of heightened awareness of an epidemic of underage inappropriate sexual predation by authority figures, this was, even in the best light, ill thought out and in very poor taste. Much like the scene in the dog movie Show Dogs, where an animal was coerced into allowing inappropriate touching for judging purposes, even if the circumstances made the behavior objectively understandable, this is not something you want to use as an example for children to follow. Moreover, as book stories are fantasy and so can be written any way the film makers want, there was ZERO reason to put in scenes where Lewis is carrying around a naked man OR to be sworn to secrecy by that same adult male concerning his nakedness in front of the child.

Even assigning innocent motives to the writers, these scenes smack of grooming for pedophiles and should be cut or re-written AS the makers of Show Dogs said they would do. (Though I have not personally confirmed whether or not they actually HAVE re-edited Show Dogs to eliminate or change the offending genital-touching/judging scenes).

Did the writer, Eric Kripke and director Eli Roth, deliberately set up scenes where a young boy is in a compromising situation with an adult male who swears him to secrecy in order to help desensitize millions of children to a similar real life scenario with far more corrupted, ugly and disgusting motives? Or was this just an ill-thought out, ignorant gag by Kripke and Roth, because neither, best I can find out, have any children so did not fully consider the implications?

I don’t really know. But, as I have inculcated to our own children a zillion times: I have never known anyone who regretted being too careful, but I have known a LOT of people who regretted not being careful enough.

What makes me sad, though, is that a movie which could have and should have been a somewhat fluffy entertainment must be analyzed in this way. Fifty years ago we could have easily attributed the innocent motives of the film makers at face value and shrugged off the possibility of any nefarious underlying motives – ALTHOUGH perhaps fifty years ago pedophia grooming could have been perpetrated in this way and we just would not have known to watch for it because its prevalence was not what it is today. Either way, the fact we live in a culture wherein it becomes necessary that even light fare today MUST be scrutinized so carefully in order to protect children makes me very sad.

So – while it’s fairly brainless amusement for adults, it might just be "Stranger Danger" level inappropriate for the kids – whether the film makers intended it to be or not.

OPERATION FINALE – DOING THEIR PART TO HELP THE WORLD “NEVER FORGET”

 

The list of top 20 movies that I would want, were I stranded on a desert island, would include My Favorite Year. It is a loose autobiographical event in the life of Mel Brooks, incarnated as the character Benji, when he was working on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows and Errol Flynn was a guest host. The movie is delightful and comedic and full of extremely memorable lines. One of them is spoken by Alan Swann played by the brilliant Peter O’Toole who, used to declaiming before the relatively small venue of crew and cast members on a movie set, when confronted with the realization that he would be performing on live TV before an audience of hundreds and broadcast out to millions, has a panic attack. Preparing to run out the building, he pronounces to Benji, as though incredulous that they had not understood this before: “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!” meaning that he believes himself to be all flash and dazzle and not an artist.

My husband and I have used Swann’s pronouncement to distinguish amongst performers. While there are many movie stars, there are only a handful of actors. Some actors of distinction include hoffman1hoffmanDustin Hoffman, theronCharlize Theron, and streep1streepMeryl Streep, all of whom display an exceptional craft along with an unhesitating commitment, which includes not minding making themselves look ugly, should the roll require it.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY TO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE BASICS OF THE HISTORY

kingsleyBen Kingsley falls into this category. Kinglsey is a versatile and mesmerizing actor. From the titular historic Kingsley - ghandiGhandi to the ridiculous kingsley mandarinMandarin in Iron Man 3, from the wise and genlle kingsley schindlerItzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant, in Schindler’s List, to the brutal gangster kingsley sexy beastDon Logan in Sexy Beast, Kingsley displays a repertoire which few could master.

Now, adding to the many suits in Kingsley’s closet, is the portrayal of Adolph Eichmann, the focus of Operation Finale. Kingsley, whose mother’s family was Jewish, brilliantly crafts a chillingly normal portrait of a man who superficially appears like anyone else but on closer examination reveals a hollowness to his soul which he filled with a prosaic ambition to advance a career which only happened to require the systematic murder of millions of innocent people. The morality of his actions did not seem to matter to him one way or the other.

Directed by Chris Weitz, whose family members were Holocaust survivors, (previously known for writing or directing far lighter material such as  Nutty Professor II, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Rogue One, and Antz), Operation Finale is a film about the location, identification, capture, and trial dock2 dockof one of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen, the architect of The Final Solution, the genocidal slaughterer of millions of Jewish families, eichmann and kingsleyAdolph Eichmann. Eichmann is the person about whom the expression “the banality of evil”  Hannah Arendt, reporting on Eichmann’s trial, referred. Arendt recognized these horrific deeds were performed not out of sadism or any evil intent, ditchEichmann by ditchbut by a merely bureaucratic routine functionary going through motions which he thought would advance his career, without any thought or care for the consequences of his actions. To my mind, this is perhaps more horrifying than a serial killer who gets his jollies from inflicting pain and suffering. A serial killer can be temporarily satiated. A Nazi bureaucrat could continue daily for decades without a thought or need to slow.

Forget Regan in The Exorcist or Heath Ledger’s Joker or Michael Myers’ Halloween killer – the frightening matter-of-factness about Kingsley’s Eichmann is as close to an accurate portrayal of the demonic as I hope to ever see.

malkin isaacsOscar Isaac portrays the real life Peter Malkin, a member of the Mossad and survivor of the Nazi genocide, instrumental to this historic Israeli organized clandestine operation. isaacsPresented as historic drama, Operation Finale begins with one of Malkin’s failures and proceeds primarily through his point of view as ephemerally loose threads are found and woven into the net which unearths this man who committed some of the most evil acts in all of mankind’s history – which, given mankind’s propensity for evil acts is saying something.

Also supporting Isaacs’ Malkin are Jewish performers: Melanie Laurent (of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry) as Hannah, Nick Kroll (raised in a Conservative Jewish family) as Rafi, Michael Aronov as Zvi, Lior Raz  (born in Jerusalem) as Isser, head of the operation, and Ohad Knoller (born Tel Aviv) as Ephraim. Obviously a construct of love and respect for the memories of those slaughtered at the hands of unthinking, unfeeling functionaries, these men and women bear testament to the horrors committed in the name of arrogant totalitarianism, in particular, Nazism.

The film is a re-enactment of the heroic events by the images371MHE58men and women imagesT0P6TZIAwho risked capture, torture and death membert2themselves in Argentina, a country which happily welcomed notorious high ranking Nazis imagesGU3392RLand was still rife with open anti-Semitism.

During the course of Eichmann’s captivity, as the group awaited delayed extraction,  it became necessary for Eichmann to agree in writing to be a willing accomplice to his own extradition. The task evolves from a snatch and grab Mission Impossible adventure to a mental game of cat and mouse. IsaacsAs time begins to run out and the increasingly frustrated and tightly strung agents, some last remaining members of their families, endure proximity to their former tormentor, now prisoner, Malkin takes it upon himself to get inside of Eichmann’s head. We, and they, start to wonder if one side or the other  – Eichmann or the Mossad members – is succumbing to what would later be known as Stockholm Syndrome.

This opportunity to get inside the rationalizations of one of the world’s most notorious people is one of the most valuable aspects of Operation Finale – to remind ourselves that the deeply fundamentally wicked often presents itself as the common and mundane, much like the feral hunters who camouflage themselves in order to get close to their prey. Ted Bundy seemed ordinary, charming and intelligent. Jeffrey Dahmer had a pleasant forgettable face, nothing you’d associate with a serial killer and cannibal. Rarely do those who perform dramatically horrifying actions wear a sign around their neck proclaiming themselves to be masters of evil. Eichmann, as dramatized by Kingsley’s amazing presentation, is no exception.

There is a wise saying by George Santayana in his Reason in Common Sense: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Operation Finale does justice to this moment in history with a film that seeks to help us avoid this perilous omission.