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.

ADRIFT – WASTED OPPORTUNITY

SHORT TAKE:

Wooden cookie cutter rendition of the harrowing real life experiences of Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp lost at sea for 41 days after being caught in Hurricane Raymond, missing every opportunity to reveal any eternal truths.

WHO COULD SEE IT:

Any older teen and up who enjoys a disaster/endurance movie. Some language and a non-sexual full nudity female scene. No point in scaring younger kids with the genuinely frightening hurricane scenes in this vapid soap opera disaster movie.

LONG TAKE:

The famous classic – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – a man marooned on an island – is ultimately about his spiritual conversion from a materialist and slaver, disobedient to both his Earthly father and his Heavenly one, to a devout Christian. His external trials make him suceptible when faced with internal struggles as well, to turn to God and the Bible. Only in his newly redisovered faith does he find the peace and contentment he had sought and becomes a better man as he comes to appreciate God's love and know he is under his Creator's watchful eye even when apparently desolate and alone on an island. The island represents Crusoe's spiritual aloneness and, much like in Groundhog Day, (which comparison would make a great blog for another day), he is not rescued until he learns true altruism and his place in God's plans.  He accepts his massive and repeated tribulations as a reading on the Bible tells us in Hebrews that: "the Lord disciplines the one He loves".

Adrift is an open set up for a re-creation of this scenario. A troubled young woman, who drifted through life long before she was set "adrift" by Hurricane Raymond, has a difficult childhood, irresponsible parents and an anchorless way of life – leaving home at 18 to hop her way via odd jobs to Tahiti. There she meets Richard and the two leave for a "jaunt" to San Diego on a job to transport a friend’s yacht. On the way they encounter a CAT 5 hurricane, which I personally know is terrifying on land. Even seeing the movie, I can not truly imagine the trauma they must have endured on the open ocean. I frankly, having survived Hurricane Rita on land, had trouble watching some of their ordeal in the boat.

The film does a horrifically good job reenacting their desperate struggle to stay alive in the belly of this mountain sized monster with waves moaning and rising above them like the "angry giant" of many prayers entreating God’s protection against these very phenomena. Miraculously the boat survives with Tami still on it. She finds Richard severely injured and seeks to nurse both him and the boat in a 1500 mile trek through the Pacific Ocean.

While I understand this is based on a true story, there was every opportunity for the scriptwriters to use her ordeal and miraculous arrival in Hawaii to tell more than just an action adventure story of survival. A documentary or reality episode or a newspaper clipping could have done that. If we are to endure, with Tami, her terrible struggles, it behooves a good writer to do so with a purpose. Instead we are treated to a fact sheet: She meets Richard – check. They fall in love – check. They go on the boat – check. They endure a Hurricane – check. She manages to acquire enough food and water to survive through luck and ingenuity – check. She gets to Hawaii – check. And……?

After spending 96 minutes with this young woman in a recounting of the most traumatic experience of her life (and more traumatic than I hope most of us ever have to endure) we are left knowing no more about her than we started at the credits. A few odds and ends of trivia about the way she grew up, but no more.

I can not imagine anyone not changed by such a deeply churning experience. Sadly, we do not know, based upon this movie, what those meaningful and core maturations might be.

What we are left with is a two person version of Tom Hanks’ Castaway – which suffered from the same flaw. All "event" with no substance. Much like having spaghetti with no sauce – filling but not satisfying.

As I said, the special effects of the hurricane were very well done – a bit too good frankly. The acting of Shailene Woodley (Divergent series) kind of amounted to a lot of vapid shallow smiles and giggles during the courtship and sunburnt glowering/angry/determined to survive faces during the tribulations part. Sam Claflin (Hunger Games veteran) wasn’t given a lot to do other than be "in love" or stoically be in pain.

And while I understand this is based on a true story, the portions where the movie shows their meeting and relationship, shown in flashback, are pedantically slow. The audience frequently was reduced to the third wheel watching the slow pace of an actual dinner.

During one such date Richard explains how unpleasant sailing can be – "You’re usually sleep deprived and delusional, wet, hungry or all three." She asks why he sails and, perking up, I expected some important philosophical epiphany which might guide us, like her sextant through the rest of the movie. Instead he sort of mumbles about how infinite the horizon looks. And? I thought. And? But nothing. So his whole raison d'etre, the entire reason he is out there with this young woman, the reason they end up risking their lives in a painfully unrelenting endurance marathon was because —– the ocean is so very pretty.

There is so much more that could have been done with this movie – just with that moment. But they let it flit by like Tami’s early years – objectless and purposeless.

Captain Dan in Forrest Gump (click the picture to watch the clip) gives us more philosophical musings and a better insight into the meaning of life during his one rant to God on board Gump's ship during a hurricane as he screams "Come on! You call this a storm?" than the entire script of Adrift. Bogie and Hepburn simmered with more chemistry in one glance on The African Queen during their struggles as they make it up a river to confront a German gunboat during World War I and a storm, than Claflin and Woodley managed in the entire movie. This is because we were introduced to Captain Dan and Rose and Charlie, respectively, in substantive ways and so we come to care about them. But Tami and Richard, as portrayed in the movie, are two dimensional lovers in a cookie-cutter romance. This is a shame because I'm sure there was more to the real people involved in that.

Aside from – don't cross the ocean in hurricane season – the audience did not learn much, either about the main characters or from their experiences.

I feel badly for the ordeal that Tami and Richard went through but that is not enough to carry a movie. A movie has between 80 and 120 minutes to tell you a story. It behooves the writer to make it worth your while to sit through whatever they are going to tell you. Movies are supposed to be a condensed version of real life and the best of them will make you a better person for having seen it. It is inadequate for a movie to be a moment-by-moment blow-by-blow exposition without direction or purpose.

In short and unfortunately Adrift is most aptly and appropriately named.

Mild warnings: There's no reason NOT to see this film if you are an older teen and up. There is a bit of language, no gratuitous sexuality although there is one non-sexual gratuitously naked scene where Woodley bares absolutely all in order to happily writhe about on deck in the fresh water of rain. The hurricane scenes alone are horrifying and way too scary for younger kids, much less are the views of eggregious injuries endured by Richard and exposed to the audience.

Dark Tower – A Wasteland of Missed Opportunity

poster2Popular wisdom says that origin books are almost always better than the movies based on them. While often true the reverse is more prevalent than you might think. Wille WonkaTake Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. The movie, based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, did not wander far from the source material. Though since Dahl wrote both the book and the first draft of the screenplay that is not surprising. But the movie had an added fillip which, to me, was the most memorable moment in the story. Charlie had snuck a sip of Fizzy Lifting Drink and Wonka tells Charlie because of that he won’t get any reward. But it’s a test. So shines.pngDespite Wonka’s cruel and angry behavior to him Charlie gives Wonka back the gobstopper souvenir instead of selling it to Wonka’s competitor. Wonka says: "So shines a good deed in a weary world," then tells Charlie he is to inherit the entire factory. It’s a beautiful moment masterfully played out between Wilder and Ostrum. But it wasn’t in the book. To me it was the crown jewel of the adventure.

MP bookMary Poppins was a series of adventures with the title character coming and going into and out of the Banks' children's lives, as the winds changed: trips around the world, tea parties on the ceiling, learning to cook when the Banks’ cook goes on leave, the birth of other children in the Banks' household, etc – some knit into the movie, most not. But no where does it have the central theme of rescuing not the children, but ultimately the Banks’ children’s father, despite the fact, according to the movie Savings MBSaving Mr. Banks, this was the intent of her stories. Apparently she was just too coy with the theme. The movie, however, makes this beautiful theme crystal clear. Mr Banks.jpgThe hair on the back of your neck will stand up and the hardest will get teary watching a defeated Mr. Banks, knowing he is about to be fired, believing he has failed his children, stand, in the dark at the bottom of the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral where the children had wanted to buy feed for the birds. As the instrumental version of Feed the Birds swells in the background and you know there is a change of wind coming for HIM, you know you are experiencing one of the great moments of cinema. This was not nor could have been adequately portrayed in the book.

GWTWGone With the Wind, while a classic book did not capture the imagination the way the movie did with its sweeping panoramas of Tara in her glory and stricken Confederate soldiers at the railroad station or the burning of Atlanta all against Max Steiner’s magnificent soundtrack and the incendiary chemistry between Leigh and Gable as Scarlett and Rhett played out in Technicolor.

On the other hand, there are movies like the HPHarry Potter series, which are based on a sequence of books so packed with rich magical ideas and creativity that even in 8 movies the filmmakers could only make a Reader’s Digest version. Short shrift was given to some characters like NHNNearly Headless Nick and some were left out altogether Peeveslike Peeves; and some brilliant parts of the books were sadly absent from the films: Harry dressing down Lupin for virtually abandoning his wife and child; the previously misjudged Fleur Delacour declaring her continued devotion to the now scarred Bill Weasley saying "I am beautiful enough for the both of us." It was obvious the movies were a labor of love but just couldn’t do the books justice.

c6269487482a083efdda16c756e186c0--dark-tower-gunslinger-dark-tower-tattooThen there’s Dark Tower. *weary sigh* I once was a fan of Stephen King. That was before he went on a diatribe against the pro-life movement, but that’s a story for another blog. During the height of my King fan-reading I tried to slog through the series of Dark Tower books AS they were coming out. I couldn’t get past the third of what would eventually be eight. It was an incomprehensible mess. It seemed as though King would wake up every morning and before his first cup of coffee spill, without filter, whatever thoughts came to him. Then the next day he would do the same thing, making weak efforts to tie what he’d written the previous day into the current days "work". There were lobster monsters and vampires, slow mutants and doomed theme parks, fatal rides on mining cars and homages to his other books. And in the book ROLAND, THE GUNSLINGER THOUGHTLESSLY MURDERS JAKE just to be able to continue his quest towards this Dark Man who, as time goes on, seems to not be quite as bad as the the Gunslinger himself. Then at the end of the 8th book (I read the Wikipedia synopsis recently as I didn’t want to wade through the rest of the books) King pretty much gives a middle finger to his audience, leaving the Gunslinger to start his quest all over again with no real resolution. The series reads like a challenge to see just how devoted his fans really are – like an insecure child constantly misbehaving just to be forgiven, demanding his parents prove they love him.

That’s not to say King hasn’t written anything good since then.green mile Green Mile was a beautifully written modern parable and I’d be hard pressed to say which I liked better – book or movie. They were both well done, the former by King the latter by Frank Darabont.

The FOUR screenwriters (Akiva "A Beautiful Mind and I,Robot" Goldsman, Jeff "Fringe" Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel) who were tasked with writing the screenplay from King’s Dark Tower series must have taken a look at the books, thought – "Well, Dark Tower is a King product so we have to do SOMETHING with this because we sure can’t film THIS mess," and actually managed to create a decent narrative script.

Gunslinger and walterSo they took the general idea of the Dark Tower quest, the 3 main characters – Roland, Jake and Walter the Dark Man, SOME of the weirdness rats(animal mutants wearing people faces) and created a STORY. picturesFatherless Jake and his widowed then remarried mother live in a New York beset with signs of coming cataclysm – earthquakes and eerie storms. His visions of the gunslinger’s Wasteland – a world which has "moved on" – and his violent outbursts drive his desperate mother to seek help from psychiatrists who ultimately schedule him for a stay at a retreat for troubled youths. When Jake realizes the social workers who have come to take him are mutants from the Wasteland of his visions he escapes through a portal in an abandoned house possessed by a demon sent by the Dark Man….and THIS is the version of the story that makes SENSE!

Dark Man.jpgThe Dark Man, Walter, is played like a sinister Vegas magician by Matthew "Interstellar" McConaughey. Not his fault – just the way it’s written. McConaughey does his best to tread that fine line between over the top scene chewing bad guy and seductive Hannibal Lector-like serial killer. The result is serviceable but nothing to write home about.

The script doesn’t hang together. Dark towerIf the Dark Tower is the force for good, why is it DARK? The thing looks pretty darned creepy as portrayed – not some bastion of good and cohesive force. Traditionally, especially in a mythos-like fable of good and evil something this DARK would represent evil. And why is something DARK under attack from the DARK Man? The name similarities are either a product of a direct intentional relationship or sloppy writing. If the former there is a glaring inconsistency. As this is a completely invented universe we have no context for making a distinction and are given no explanation. Where did the mutants come from and why does the Dark Man make them wear masks? Why do the "mutants" look like large versions of Ratty from Wind in the Willows? How did the Wasteland come to "move on" and where did that expression come from? Not to be pedantic or facitious but where did it move to? Just an odd phrase for something falling apart. How does the Gunslinger have the power to resist the Dark Man’s magic and if the Dark man has the power to put people under his control just by waving at them why does he play with Roland like a sated cat with a mouse instead of just sending people by the thousands to overwhelm him?

Not that this movie is bad. It is CERTAINLY MUCH better than the books. OK that is because it is completely different from the books. Frankly – aside from the superficial skeleton – it has NOTHING in common with the books. It’s just that it could have been so much more. The writers were so burdened with trying to glue a coherent story from King’s mismash soup of blatherings from the book that they missed several opportunities to make a really great movie. The story felt as though they became so exhausted with stitching an entire suit out of the random pieces they were given that they forgot to sew up the holes created by the mismatching parts.

The only jewel in this story is Idris Elba. He can sell ANYthing. And he makes the Gunslinger a compelling believable character. He’s what Shane would have been in Lord of the Rings – valiant, determined, stalwart and brave in the face of evil. NOT the kind to murder young boys out of convenience as King's character in the books does. Elba’s fighting scenes are worth the price of admission.

roland on ground shooting

I realized when looking for interesting pictures to feature in the blog, about all there WAS were pictures of Idris Elba's Roland shooting – and even then you can't get the grace and class with which he performs these balletic moves. Creative and exciting, the style with which he just loads his gun is fun to watch. However and unfortunately, you get a pretty generous preview of all the good stuff in the trailers. That’s not to say you should not go see it, but don’t be disappointed when you find the movie’s best features are just longer versions of what you’ve already seen.